The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) by Joe Talbot
Review by Jessica Carr
“Weird as it sounds, this movie is a love story about me and a house.” - Jimmie Fails
As soon as the credits rolled for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, I felt a sense of renewal wash over my whole body. This was the first time in 2019 that I left the theater feeling like I had just witnessed something truly masterful. This film is truly a work of poetry-in-motion. Each shot feels like a single line of a poem, and I felt very moved by it when I left the theater.
This poetic feeling is most evident during the first 15 minutes of the film; there is little-to-no dialogue, but the movie manages to present its whole thesis in that short amount of time. We see the two main characters, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Mont (Jonathan Majors), ride on Jimmie’s skateboard through their beloved San Francisco. The pair dreamily coast down the streets and the camera captures the slow-mo reactions of the people that also inhabit their city. As Jimmie and Mont get closer to downtown San Francisco, the people go from happy African-American inhabitants to mostly White inhabitants that seem to be much less excited. It sets the tone for a film that has plenty of things to say about gentrification, a city’s history, and how those things can impact one’s identity. And the creators of the film (real-life best friends Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot) choose to present these themes in the most poetic way possible.
For example, when the love of Jimmie’s life is introduced, the camera shows the Victorian home in close-ups, cutting from features of the home that parallel with features of Jimmie. The gold trim close-up cuts to a close-up of Jimmie’s gold chain necklace. The red trim on the windows is paired with Jimmie’s red plaid shirt. This is how the audience is visually shown there is a special connection between Jimmie and this home. Later in the film, we find out that it is a home built by his grandfather in 1946. For the rest of the film, Jimmie and his best friend Mont try to take back the house which takes them on a journey that tests their friendship but also makes them question what defines a “home” in the first place.
In the same way that a Barry Jenkins movie provokes feeling with shots of his characters looking directly into the camera, this film uses slow motion shots of everyday people to provoke a feeling of home. Usually when you live in a place for so long, you don’t stop to appreciate all the beautiful things about it, but these slow-motion shots not only romanticizes the images and adds a dreamy quality, but it also help the viewer appreciate what they are seeing. Whether it be Jimmie gliding down the streets of San Fran or Mont smiling while fall leaves are being thrown at him, the viewer gets a sense of how these characters really feel about their home. They love this place, even though it is being taken over by people who don’t really understand it they way they do. But the movie shows Jimmie and Mont finding little joys in what they can, including their close friendship.
Interestingly, the happy slow-mo scenes in the film seem to be only reserved for people of color. In fact, the old white couple that own the Victorian home aren’t on screen for very long at all – and when they are…they’re kind of assholes (see: the lady throwing croissants at Jimmie while her husband yells about how expensive they are). Another scene that is a stark contrast to the dreamy ones is when Jimmie moves into the home and goes to greet his white neighbor walking a dog. Jimmie says, “I’m going to be the best neighbor you’ve ever had,” and walks away. The man then says out loud, “What the fuck was that all about?” It’s almost as though Jimmie feels like he needs to prove that he deserves to be in the house, and the viewer also believes that Jimmie deserves the million dollar home even though we know that as a retirement home employee there is no way he’ll ultimately be able to afford it. But the house is so wrapped up in his identity, and the way the film progresses from start to finish is so impressive with the way they handle that conflict.
One of the things that I love most about this film is that it clearly was a labor of love. Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails spent years working on the script – they wanted to express how a feeling of home can get tangled in one’s sense of identity and they drew from Fails’s real life experiences to tell that story on screen. It’s like when Jimmie is on the bus and he hears these two women talk about how much they hate San Francisco and Jimmie tells them you can hate it, but you also have to love it – you can talk shit about where you’re from, but outsiders can’t.
There are so many things I want to say about this movie, but how can I put it all here? I felt very emotionally invested in Jimmie and Mont’s friendship. When Jimmie and Mont are together, it’s an absolutely beautiful thing, and I think Mont is one of the most brilliant characters I’ve seen on screen in 2019. I hope that more filmmakers continue to present their films in the poetic way that Talbot does here, because combining these two art forms can really transform a story from something as simple as a man falling in love with a house into something extraordinary. This is one of the best films of 2019 – and if you don’t believe me, then I guess you’ll just have to see the poetry-in-motion for yourself.