The Last Black Man in San Francisco is over-directed: The camera impersonates the POV of a pop fly ball, the images frequently are affected by superfluous slow-mo, and the score operates as if vying for this year’s Philip Glass Award for Cacophonous Sound That Drowns Out Dialogue. But this is also a film built around, and anchored by, two impeccably defined characters, the hard-luck dreamer Jimmie Fails (played by an actor of the same name—though one who is not playing himself) and his longtime friend, Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring playwright. First-time feature director Joe Talbot also displays a sharp understanding of the way that his city’s [he’s a fifth-generation San Franciscan] sociocultural history is tied up in the development of its architecture, or more broadly, in the way changing spatial dynamics have redefined ethnic and cultural boundaries.
Talbot is white, and his grasp on the milieu of his mostly black characters can feel wobbly; Jimmie and Mont both ostensibly have jobs, though they seem to almost never go to them, while the street hustlers that hangout on the corner by Mont’s family home are really just there to set-up a late-film emotional set-piece. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is at its strongest when dealing with its central dilemma, which functions more as sociological gauntlet than literal narrative: Fails, who is obsessed with the childhood home that his “grandfather built in 1946” and that his dad lost to creditors when he was still a little boy, has designs on recouping the lavish property, and ignores all legal and logical points of deterrence in the process. “You never really own shit,” Fails states frankly in one scene, and that’s really the point: this isn’t a film about a man and his struggle to repossess a house, but rather it’s about the transience of a peoples’ claim to their territory, and how ones self-definition should never be limited to what they have.
Published as part of June 2019’s Before We Vanish.