From the film’s gorgeous opening sequence, it quickly becomes clear that Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is going to be something special. It only happens to me a few times in any given year, but from its first moments, I couldn’t take my eyes off of this feature, completely and utterly absorbed in this beautiful tale of friendship and an unshakable bond with a city.
Co-written by and starring Jimmie Fails, The Last Black Man features Fails and Jonathan Majors as Jimmie and Montgomery, two best friends living with Montgomery’s grandfather (Danny Glover), who pass the time skating, writing and fixing up Jimmie’s family home. The problem is, Jimmie doesn’t live there and hasn’t for more than a decade.
Most days they wait until the owners are out and then make their way through the gate and proceed to tend to the yard or do some painting, only to be kicked out when they come home. Though they find Jimmie to be a nuisance, they recognize him as harmless. When they suddenly move out, Jimmie sees this as the opportunity he was waiting for and begins to fulfill his dream of once again living in this house.
There’s a lot to unpack with Talbot’s debut feature, but as it’s presented in a lighthearted, joyous innocence, not hamstrung by its own themes, making for a downright magical experience from beginning to end. This is heavily aided by the stunning cinematography by Adam Newport-Berra and score by Emile Mosseri.
Newport-Berra’s pointed use of slow motion and creatively framed shots not only accentuate the beauty of both the house and the city where it resides (one could even say they are characters in the movie), but also supports the almost fairytale nature of the narrative. Likewise, Mosseri’s score brought me to tears at certain points and perfectly complements the film’s heartwarming yet bittersweet moments. A highlight is certainly the incredible rendition of San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair), but the soundtrack demands to be heard beyond just the film.
Jimmie and Montgomery are men who march to the beat of their own drum, lost in their own worlds – Jimmie struggling to hold on to his memories of a better time and Montgomery expressing the nuances of humanity through his playwriting and sketches. It’s this deep friendship that proves to be the central element of the film, although not the only one of significance.
Gentrification priced Jimmie to the outer reaches of his beloved city, and as much as he wants to hold the fond memories close to his heart, he’s forced to confront the fact that the city has changed and, with it, so must he. This is a theme we’ve seen a few times in recent years, with last year’s brilliant and underrated Blindspotting immediately coming to mind, but Talbot approaches the topic in a less aggressive, more sentimental way, all lovingly crafted with a dry sense of humor steadily parsing them out throughout the runtime.
The pacing does slow down when Jimmie’s fantasy begins to reach its inevitable conclusion, but the script rebounds hard with a strong final act, ensuring that The Last Black Man in San Francisco isn’t a film audiences will soon forget.
The film is an outstanding achievement for all those involved with high marks across the board for the incredible performances by Fails and Majors, the meticulously crafted production design, and the aforementioned cinematography and score. Easily one of the best experiences I’ve had in the cinema this year, this isn’t one to sit on; go see it on the big screen.