To say that it is a film based on a true story doesn’t quite do justice to the heartbreakingly lovely cinematic requiem The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Jimmie Fails, the film’s star and co-writer basically plays a version of himself – he and his character even share the same name – in a story based on his own experience directed and co-written by his best friend, Joe Talbot.
The peculiarly haunting drama, which also counts Rob Richert among its co-writers, earned Talbot the directing prize as well as a special jury prize for “creative collaboration” at this year’s prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
The elegiac story centers on the unusually close friendship between two young, poor black men trying to build their lives in their rapidly changing hometown of San Francisco. Jimmie (Fails) spent his early childhood in a toweringly beautiful Victorian-style home in the historic Fillmore District before his life fell apart: His father, James Sr. (Rob Morgan), a schemer and apparent addict, lost the home his father passed down to him, and Jimmie spent a chunk of his youth in a group home.
So, Jimmie sleeps on the floor of his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors), a quiet, gentle and offbeat aspiring artist and playwright, who lives with his mostly blind grandfather (Danny Glover) in a house near the low-income Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.
In between their odd jobs – Mont labors in a fish market, while Jimmie cares for senior citizens in an assisted-living center – they take the bus or ride Jimmie’s skateboard to the Fillmore, where they weed the garden, repaint the gingerbread trim and do other maintenance on Jimmie’s old family home – much to the consternation of the white Baby Boomer couple who has lived there for 12 years.
Jimmie’s grandfather built the house with his own two hands after World War II, he explains, and even though he hasn’t lived there since he was a little boy, Jimmie can’t let it go. And when a family tragedy forces the residents to quickly move out, Jimmie and Mont quickly move into the abandoned house in the hopes of establishing squatters’ rights. Jimmie’s Aunt Wanda (the excellent Tichina Arnold), the only stable person in his family, has even squirreled away many original furnishings, allowing them to move into the multimillion-dollar residence in style.
In a cinematic era when so many movies seem to drown in exposition, The Last Black Man in San Francisco addresses a myriad of deep and timely issues – gentrification and displacement, drug addiction and broken homes, toxic masculinity and gun violence – all without ever talking about them directly.
Instead, a sort of Greek chorus of young black men constantly loiters outside Mont’s grandfather’s house, hurling insults, scuffling and constantly warning Mont and Jimmie, as well as each other, about the price that will be paid if they are “soft.” In one of the film’s most gut-wrenching scenes, Jimmie encounters on the bus a recovering addict talking on her cellphone and realizes she’s his mother, with whom he lost contact when she moved out the city.
And in scene after scene inside and outside the stately Victorian house, we see Jimmie’s obsessive desire and determination to get back the family home that is now impossibly out of reach.
The notion of a place as a veritable character in films has become a cliché, but Talbot and Fails manage to establish the pale gray mansion with its red and gold trim and distinctive “witch’s hat” turret as an unrequited love interest, one that is beautiful, unattainable and seemingly guaranteed to break Jimmie’s heart.
The film swaps a surfeit of words for memorable images that indelibly establish a sense of place — a street singer operatically crooning the hippie anthem “San Francisco,” the casual nudist chatting with Jimmie at a bus stop, the clean-up crew wearing hazmat suits to tidy up near the mucky water in Bayview-Hunters Point while the poor black residents live in the neighborhood without any sort of protection – as well as Fails’ complicated relationship with his hometown. Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra brings striking vistas and silvery light that are well-matched with Emile Mosseri’s evocative score.
Although the storytelling could be tightened up a bit for greater effectiveness, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a stunning feature film debut for both its director and star as well as one of the best films of the year.