With bold vision informed by soul, The Last Black Man in San Francisco makes for an impressive directorial debut. It is a film where humor is elevated by pathos. A movie as melancholy, beautiful, painful and subtly sanguine as this calls for a unique vision, and ubiquitous comparisons I’ve read to Wes Anderson fall short. A heartfelt sincerity overwhelms any of the film’s quirks. These oddball characters struggling to come to terms with the reality of gentrification in San Francisco, a phenomena not exclusive to that expensive city (it happens in Miami all the time), are more than weirdos. They’re us.
Writer-director Joe Talbot co-wrote the script with Rob Richert and fellow newcomer co-writer/actor Jimmie Fails, who plays a character in the film with his same name. One could get bogged down in the reality that inspired the movie. Let it suffice to say Talbot and Fails grew up in San Francisco making videos as teenagers, and this film is inspired by Fails’ family losing their Victorian home to rising real estate costs. You can read about that and the launch of a 2015 Kickstarter to make this film in the archives of SF Weekly. Their movie would go on to win two major prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for directing and creative collaboration. There should be no doubt this film will be considered toward the end of awards season, early next year.
The film is filled with rich scenes full of color and dynamic lighting shot by Adam Newport-Berra and colorful, at times eccentric costuming by Amanda Ramirez while driven by a gorgeous, lush score by Emile Mosseri — another newcomer who surely has a promising career of film scoring ahead of him — that sounds inspired by Philip Glass and gospel music. This attention to cinematic detail probably superficially earned the film its comparisons to Anderson’s movies, many of which I have reviewed in depth. The scenes are also concentrated with layered meanings and a good dose of humor, but there’s a humanity that reverberates and washes over the movie with an approachable earthiness.
In one scene, Mike Epps makes a cameo as homeless Bobby in a raggedy, creaking 1980s era sedan (maybe a Chevy Nova) that he once borrowed from Jimmie’s dad and claimed for himself. He finds Jimmie and his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors, in a marvelously dynamic tortured and energetic performance) waiting for the bus on a big rock on the side of a weed-covered hill. Bobby teases the pair as young old-looking men. They’re hardly fazed, and they will indeed prove wizened to their rut throughout the film despite what seems to be childish behavior like taking to squatting in Jimmie’s old house after the rich family who once lived there move out to fight over the property in court following the death of their matriarch. They’re out to exorcise the demons of their past to become the grown men they are meant to be, following their own paths alone but bromantically supportive of one another, an effort noticed and derided by some as effeminate. In actuality, however, they’re becoming wholer men.
There’s an attention to detail that doesn’t feel forced. When we’re introduced to the interior of the house, where a tower is referred to as a “witch hat,” it’s a montage of still images focused on the glorious detail inside of banisters and crown moldings while the sound of Jimmie and Mont running around the property fills the soundtrack. It’s an incredible reveal filled with the sentiment of nostalgia for the ghosts of Jimmie’s past against the grandeur of the detail of the home. What plays out there, however, as the pair start sharing the home is a beautiful lesson in how people are more than the places they grew up in.
Its message is grander in the face of its themes of gentrification and cuts to the source of the optimistic mood of the film. Despite the painful experiences of the characters: we are all connected. And if the message in the film wasn’t clear upon my first viewing, there is no denying the powerful moment I had experiencing it sitting between two friends I hadn’t spent time with in a long while, during a preview screening. At the start of the movie, Jasmine, who sat to my left, noted that she had the same hairstyle of an uncredited little girl, who was the first person to appear on screen. Then, an off-screen voice in the film calls for the girl: “Jasmine!” At the end of the movie, a character sits alone on a dinghy in San Francisco’s bay. The name of the boat was Monica, the name of my friend sitting to my right. Maybe this encounter with divine synchronicity biases me, but there was no greater way to start and end a film with such resonant themes.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco runs 120 minutes and is rated R. It opens this Friday, July 15 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.
It originally opened at the following theaters in South Florida on Friday, June 28: MIAMI-DADE: MDC’s Tower Theater Miami, O Cinema Miami Beach and AMC Aventura 24. BROWARD: Classic Gateway Theatre and Cinemark Paradise 24. PALM BEACH: Movies of Delray 5, Regal Shadowood 16, Cinemark Palace 20 and CMX Downtown at The Gardens 16. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. A24 invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.