In its glorious opening six minutes Joe Talbot’s feature debut The Last Black Man in San Francisco announces itself as something special. A vibrant work of art that celebrates the colourful residents of the city by the bay, while simultaneously lamenting the gentrification that is systematically erasing those who provide San Francisco with its culture and heart.
It is this complicated love/hate relationship with the place he calls home that makes Talbot’s love letter to the city so riveting and rewarding. As protagonist Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) states at one point, only those who truly love San Francisco have the right to hate it.
There is no doubt that Talbot loves his city despite its numerous flaws. However, his film is as much about remembering the past as it is about not letting the past stifle one’s future.
This is the bitter pill that Jimmie must learn to swallow. When not staying over at his best friend Montgomery ‘Mont’ Allen’s (Jonathan Majors) house, Jimmie and Mont spend time tending to the Victorian style house that Jimmie’s grandfather built. Painting the window trim and watering the garden, they treat Jimmie’s abandoned childhood home as if it was their own.
The thing is the house is not vacant at all. In fact, its current owners are tired of coming home and finding Jimmie on their property. Ignoring repeated request to never return, Jimmie is determined to maintain his upkeep of the house until he can properly reclaim his family home. However, when a potential opportunity arises, Jimmie quickly discovers that buying a home in San Francisco is more costly and complicated than he ever imagined.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco finds plenty of humour in the inventive way Jimmie and Mont attempt to circumvent the rules to stake claim on the house, and the various San Francisco inhabitants the pair encounter. Through his memorable cast of characters, Talbot paints a startling portrait of two distinct worlds. One where those living in wealthy gentrified neighbourhoods complain about mundane things, and one where the sweat and labour of the black community is baked into every wood paneling and concrete slab that the city is built on. The latter of which is further emphasized through Talbot’s wonderful visual palette.
Every crevice of his film is dripping with style and layered substance. He uses simple shots of a black girl gleefully skipping by workers in hazmat suits, while a soapbox street preacher openly questions why no one else in the community has been given the same protective wear, to show the disparity between the classes. The comical juxtaposition of the image carries a powerful punch. Polluted water is only worth addressing when incoming white citizens are expected to drink it.
Talbots confidently utilizes slow-motion and window imagery to capture the diverse personalities of the region, the rapidly changing landscape and the faceless overseers who look down on the displaced and forgotten people beneath them. It is no accident that when Jimmie is first shown peering into his grandfather’s home it is through a partly cloudy window.
Jimmie is not afforded the same clear vision and opportunity as those who now live in the area.
While Jimmie’s insistence to cling to the past may cloud his vision for the future, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a witty and poignant reminder that the past may shape us, but it does not define the path we take moving forward. Our futures are governed by our choices and those who walk alongside us in the journey.
One of the most striking aspects of the film is how Jimmie and Mont’s friendship provide the stepping stones to a path of growth and change. Mont, who works at a fish market when not drawing or working on his next play, is one of the few individuals to truly see San Francisco for what it is. He sees the pain of those displaced, the pressures on black males (presented as a Greek Chorus in the film) to live and die by a flawed notion of black masculinity and, most importantly, he sees when Jimmie is in need of hard truths.
An accomplished debut on every level imaginable, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a funny and poignant tale of friendship in a rapidly changing world. It is one of the best films of the year.