The Last Black Man in San Francisco review – gorgeous gentrification drama
Joe Talbot makes his debut with a portrait of a rapidly-changing city based on the life of his friend Jimmie Fails
Jimmie Fails – young, black, artistic – has found the perfect home. It’s the one he grew up in – the picturesque Victorian house where his family lived before they were pushed out, built by his grandfather in the 1940s. Beside being totally unaffordable at $4 million, it’s also occupied by a white, middle-class couple who – hinting at some bohemian roots, perhaps – adopt the word “man” at the end of every other sentence. And yet for Jimmie the house is a beacon of hope in a rapidly-changing city and a link to a more comforting past. So much so, in fact, that he regularly turns up to paint and maintain the exterior against its tenant’s wishes. It’s only when said tenants are evicted over an inheritance feud that Jimmy is given the opportunity he’s always dreamed of: a chance to squat in the empty house.
That’s about it, plot-wise. Writer-director Joe Talbot – making a dazzling debut with what feels closer to a second or third feature – is more interested in a contemplative mood piece that languishes in the changing face of San Francisco, a city caught between the new and old, between its history and its future. It’s a place still packed with bohemians and artists and oddballs, but one that’s also caught in the midst of a gentrification war that’s pushing its black community into the pockets. As real bohemians are being usurped by wannabes and tourists, San Francisco is facing an identity crisis. What’s certain is that it no longer feels like home for our protagonist, played tenderly here by Talbot’s close friend and collaborator Jimmie Fails in a film based on Fails’ own life story.
There’s a real painterly quality to The Last Black Man in San Francisco; every frame feels meticulously designed and vibrant in a way that echoes the films of Wes Anderson. It’s a movie that is never not wonderful to look at, though this means that none of what we’re seeing ever feels quite real – a minor weakness in a film so grounded in current issues. Talbot utilises a swooning soundtrack by Emile Mosseri to align you to his mournful perspective, whilst an unforgettable opening sequence in which Jimmie and best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors, quietly mesmerising) speed through the city on the same skateboard, evokes modern San Francisco in all its shades. Even when the film loses focus, The Last Black Man in San Francisco always makes for intoxicating viewing.
The thread of whimsy is sure to inspire some and alienate others, especially in the third act when aspiring playwright Montgomery stages a play in the attic of Jimmie’s beloved house. Here the film pushes itself further into quirky Wes Anderson territory, reminding us of Max Fischer’s Vietnam epic in Rushmore and uniting almost the entire cast, including a weary Danny Glover as Montgomery’s blind grandfather. If the film occasionally feels a little too sorry for itself, what can’t be denied is the glowing, revelatory experience of watching it unfold: gorgeously tender, The Last Black Man in San Francisco pulls you in from its first frame and lets you bath in what feels like a two-hour-long elegy. The irony is that the very existence of this beautiful, melancholy film is certain to draw even more tourists to its titular city.
By: Tom Barnard
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