Every once in a while a new voice emerges that feels so innovative, so essential, so fully-fleshed out and whole, that you just want to sing its praises from the rooftop. The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails’ stunning story of a friendship, a city, a home, has reduced me to a lame rom-com fuck boy. I want to scream it from the rooftops – I love this movie.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco sinks its hooks in early, its surreal opening shot establishing the socioeconomic dichotomy that’ll inform the film’s ethos; white men in biohazard suits pinch trash from the streets as an African-American little girl with bows and beads in her hair, adorned in a pink summer dress and blissfully ignorant of the world’s divisions and stark oddities, skips along, humming to herself. An ex-con-turned-street-preacher, dressed in a plain cheap suit complete with matching paisley tie and pocket square, stands on his soapbox and attempts to draw attention to the bizarre scene. But no one is listening. In the early minutes of the film, director Joe Talbot paints San Fran as a microcosm of United States gentrification and we tour its city streets by skateboard. Zooming through black neighborhoods, white city streets, homeless enclaves, towering business districts, we see the many faces and sides of a city in constant redefinition. From the opening shot, Talbot’s feature has a look and feel all its own, revealing a film that’s utterly magnetic and captivating from the first frame to the last for reasons that may initially be hard to put your finger on. Just as Dick Halloran fatefully remarked, “It’s just that, you know, some places are like people. Some ‘shine’ and some don’t.” This movie has a supernatural shine to it. But in a nice way.
Combining the tradition of domestic African-American humanist cinema with the quirky, whimsical touch of a fully-formed auteur, Talbot discovers a previously-unimaginable balance between Wes Anderson and Barry Jenkins, and there he invents a style all his own: the authentic whimsicalist, the poetic pragmatist, the grounded surrealist. Further, The Last Black Man in San Francisco betrays a rare earnestness for a film that’s also this deeply funny. His voice is a harmonizing of disparate styles combined to make a new kind of orchestral sound. And it’s music to my ears. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where the film was nominated for the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, it was Talbot who ultimately walked away with a win of his own and for good reason.
The uniquely pure good-hearted magic that is The Last Black Man in San Francisco is in part a testament to its successfully experimental approach to story. In its most basic form, it is the saga of Jimmie Fails. Jimmie is a San Fran native who tends to the house his grandfather back built in 1946 – though the deed is no longer in the Fails family’s name. With best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), a socially alienated artist and playwright, Jimmie waits until the new homeowners abscond to the farmer’s market for peppers and beseeches the house with his tools. Attacking it with touch-ups, re-coating the red paint on the window sills and watering the thirsty roughage in the back.
This is Jimmie’s story in more ways than one with the actor playing himself in a somewhat surreal autobiographic turn of events. Fails may not come from a background in acting but his passion for his story sings through in his deliberate and earnest depiction of himself. As seen through Talbot’s lens, Jimmie’s isn’t a story of ruination nor salvation. There are sour notes that have steered his life into darkness but also pockets of brightly-colored hope glimpsed through friendship and soulful charity. It’s a tale of black and white in more ways than one; one that realizes that love and hate exist on the same plane and attempts to find peace with that fact.
Jimmie’s story purposefully tries to break individuals out of the frigid boxes we as a society put them in, we as movie-watchers assume them to be, and they as individuals often assign themselves. The Last Black Man in San Francisco labors to show the many sides of blackness, wrestling out that oft-subterranean sensitivity in such a way that reveals the deeply-felt poetic nature of this movie. If Jimmie is our everyman trying to find his place in life, Mont is its Bard; creating art wherever he goes; the world distinctly his stage. As friendships creak and groan like old homes and characters come to define themselves outside of their legacy and their history, the film becomes an almost spiritual experience about seizing your identity, about creating community, about telling stories of the unspoken few, about making art where none existed before.
From the technical side of the aisle, the sheer confidence exuded in this film is simply magical; a perfect storm of emerging talent working towards a thing of overwhelming and distinctive beauty. The best kind of feature debuts are those that kick down the gate, chips firmly on shoulders, with something to prove – and this does so but in a warm and graceful manner. A whimsical, effervescent French horn-heavy score from Emile Mosseri adds a playful pop and texture to the film’s soulful tapestry; Adam Newport-Berra’s rich natural lighting help to create a world that feels canorous, lived in and loved; while the squared aspect ratio helps make sure viewers never lose focus on the faces, people, and emotion of this story. Every sight and sound works together to create a visual and sonic poem, laced with realism, empathic to its core, specific to a fault.
Among the finest in A24’s wonderful crop of independent features, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is the kind of movie you feel in your bones, one that reverberates through the very valves of your heart, fills your stomach with hope, and leaves you pining for more. This movie cured my depression, paid my mortgage, walked my dog, and served me a five-course dinner. It’s hopelessly romantic without any romance, potent but peaceful, ruminant though grounded; it left just the most delicious taste in my soul.
CONCLUSION: ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ is an aching triumph of self-discovery that’s absolutely electrifying every single minute of your time with it. With some of the most crackling and distinct direction in years, it marks the arrival of a new essential voice in Joe Talbot. I swooned.
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