Writers: Joe Talbot, Rob Richert and Jimmie Fails
Director: Joe Talbot
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
‘Fuck San Francisco’ exclaims one character in this film about the city’s on-going gentrification. Indeed, to many people the gentrification of San Francisco is complete; the white middle-class has taken over all the areas that were once home to the black and/or working-class communities. With them, the gentrifiers brought their white suburban ways and erased the differences the city once had. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is the perfect elegy for this lost city.
In an audacious beginning, San Francisco is initially revealed to us from the back of a skateboard to a soundtrack of stately Baroque music. This skateboard belongs to Jimmie Fails, and running alongside him is the awkward Mont. Together the pair watch the old San Francisco flash by them; the buskers, the homeless, the eccentrics.
Mont, a budding playwright, is on his way to work at a fishmonger’s, while Jimmie drops by the house that his grandfather built. His family no longer live in the house, which, although built in the 1940s, remembers the glamour of the Victorian era. The new residents are an elderly white couple but Jimmie thinks that they are not taking care of the house properly, and so paints the odd window frame and clears up the garden, favours that the couple don’t take appreciate.
One day the elderly couple move out and Jimmie and Mont see their chance to restore the house to its old glories. It’s a venture that doesn’t sit so well with the homies that hang on the street corner. Dressed in street style and performing masculinity at its strongest, these young men have little in common with the dapper and quiet Mont, or the beanie-wearing Jimmie. They tease Mont for his odd behaviour to such an extent that he goes home and practices cussing in the mirror in their street vernacular.
Jonathan Majors is superb here, and he never sentimentalises Mont’s lack of social skills. We like him, but never pity him. Majors makes sure that even though we laugh when Mont rehearses his play we are never laughing at him. Through Majors we sense that Mont is a deep ocean. As his father Danny Glover gives ones of the best performances –subtle and unobtrusive – of his career.
As Jimmie, Jimmie Fails is thoroughly believable, which should comes as no surprise as this is his story. When he was a boy, Fails lived in the house his grandfather built before he was taken into care, just like Jimmie in the film. Fails, with his friend Joe Talbot, tried first to make this film when they were teenagers, but were more successful when they founded a Kickstarter campaign to raise money and awareness in 2015
Fails is extraordinarily good, looking wiser than his years. His face changes quickly depending on who he is with, but underneath all these exteriors lies a fixed melancholy. This sadness haunts him in the same way as the house haunts him, or as he haunts the house. This is Fails’ first professional acting role, and it’s certain on this showing that it won’t be his last.
San Francisco looks beautiful in Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography and he and Talbot ensure that the city looks both familiar and unfamiliar. A street busker sings San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair) like a requiem, while later a trolley bus rushing by and full of drunken men on a bachelor party underlines who owns the city now. It’s heart-breaking, but the friendship between Jimmie and Mont is a beacon of hope.
Quite rightly, The Last Black Man In San Francisco won two awards for Joe Talbot at the Sundance Film Festival in February and there is the occasional rumour that it may get a nomination or two in next year’s Academy Awards. An Oscar may be unlikely, but it’s definitely one of the best films of the year. It has verve and brio and heart.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October