The Last Black Man in San Francisco
The most creative and kinetic filmmaking in The Last Black Man in San Francisco is in its first 10 minutes or so, when pals Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) listen to a street preacher then go skateboarding through the city, passing through what’s left of its African American neighborhoods on their way to a classic Victorian home Jimmie’s obsessed with. The slo-mo street images are crisp and evocative, with truthful, slightly mad narration by the preacher and joyous shots of the skateboarding friends. It’s one of the best openings for any movie so far this year.
You can tell from the title that The Last Black Man bends toward parable. And you know from the fact that the lead character shares his name with the actor and co-writer playing him that it’s going to be deeply personal and passingly autobiographical.
Jimmie is a young man reduced to sleeping on the floor in the home of Montgomery's blind grandfather (Danny Glover). He’s obsessed with the glorious old house where he once lived with his father, before they were priced out of the neighborhood in the 1990s. Since then he has lived in a car, in a group home and who-knows-where-else, but he returns often to the neglected Victorian, doing guerrilla home improvement projects. When the home’s older white owners are also displaced, Jimmie and Montgomery — an artist and writer who works at a fish market — move in, hoping to exercise squatters’ rights.
Fails and director Joe Talbot use the impact of gentrification to address the larger issue of the culture of place: What (and who) defines San Francisco? What has happened to its African American community? The Greek chorus of young black men who do nothing but needle each other on the sidewalk in front of Montgomery’s house appear to represent the aimlessness of their generation, clueless to the war their side is losing. A scene with Jimmie waiting at a bus stop with a casually nude man, both of them harassed by a noisy mobile frat party on a faux trolley car, sums up the film’s view of the battle lines: The quirky diversity of the city is being pummeled by a generic and oppressive privileged class.
The Last Black Man is at its best in such unlikely and poetic moments, and there are many: on the streets, on public transit, on a dock of the bay, and out in the boonies, where Jimmie’s aunt lives and has stored some of the period furnishings the family once enjoyed in the old house. These precious and outmoded possessions are as homeless as Jimmie himself — treasures that cultural shifts have left behind. (A scene towards the end defines the soullessness of the objects that have supplanted them.)
Talbot conjures many moments of visual and emotional richness, but the screenplay he wrote with Rob Richert (from his and Fails’ story) is less successful threading together a sustained plot line to take the story to some kind of credible conclusion. An incident with one of the chorus members, combined with an unsurprising revelation about the Victorian, become a belabored climax that fizzles before Talbot returns to the more evocatively disconnected imagery that makes The Last Black Man the beautiful film it is. The fact that Talbot and Fails find no real resolution and little hope amid the blight of gentrification is no condemnation. It’s a call to action — or at least to awareness.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Opens July 12 at the Fine Arts Theatre.
(Photo: Peter-Prato, courtesy of A24)