The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

Directed by Joe Talbot

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco wears its heart on its sleeve, to say the least.  It feels like an amped up version of a Barry Jenkins film, taking the tone and texture of If Beale Street Could Talk and combining it with the place and subject matter of Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy.  That 2008 film centered on two young black characters walking and talking their way through San Francisco, their discussions often centered around the way the city is changing.

In this film we follow two friends, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Mont (Jonathan Majors), who soon begin squatting in the home Jimmie grew up in, before he and his father were forced out when he was six.  Since then he has bounced from place to place, even ending up for a time in a group home, and now all he longs for is a return to the only place that has ever felt like home.

When the story opens he lives with Mont in a quieter neighborhood of the city, next to a more unseemly, perhaps toxic part of the bay.  He and Mont share a small room at the house owned by Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover), and the two friends will rarely be apart throughout the film.

I found that the movie works best as a sort of tone poem.  The music is on a whole other level, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the way it’s shot and edited is certainly inspired.  There are unexpected camera zooms, a score that borders on operatic, and juxtapositions made and messages conveyed without any dialogue.  It’s just a viscerally alive presentation of a place and time, not to mention that Jimmie and Mont don’t need to say much for us to believe the depths of their friendship.  Just watching them ride the same skateboard into town is both hilarious and touching.

Jimmie’s and Mont’s almost dreamlike return to the Victorian house he considers “home” is connected to broader themes of displacement within the ever-changing city.  It’s not so much subtext as, well it’s right there on the surface and in the title.  Jimmie yearns to return home and yet is a bit out of place.  He may not realize it, but neighbors do, both in this new neighborhood and back in his old one.  Even his father, whom we eventually meet living in the Tenderloin, grows furious when he realizes where Jimmie is residing.

He has this silent pull towards the house that others disregard or entirely push against.  It’s as if the city itself is slowly forcing him out, which, yeah, that’s what the movie’s all about.  It’s old and new, it’s somewhat invisible class systems, it’s family and an increasingly frayed connection to history.  The movie itself feels like a swan song, whether for the characters saying goodbye to the city or the movie itself trying to capture it all on film before the city by the bay changes irreparably.

I live in San Francisco, but I haven’t been here for long.  I’m not really sure how much my perspective of the city matters, for the movie should work on its own regardless of your connection to the place onscreen.  I often wonder how people in more often photographed cities feel about the way their streets and landmarks are presented onscreen.

What I do know is that “Movie San Francisco” is usually more like Venom, a series of establishing shots of the Ferry Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Pyramid and then everything else filmed on Hollywood backlots.  It’s yada yada’d and rushed, like a cinematic adaptation of a wikipedia article.  But The Last Man in San Francisco is astoundingly fresh simply in how it photographs the city.  It’s gorgeous, what else can I say.  I know these streets, and seeing them onscreen was intoxicating.  Even just the ‘no parking’ signs or the Muni bus stops, the fog and the steep slope of California Street with an almost inhumane Bay Bridge cresting the hill in the background.

The movie is incredible in so many ways, some both personal and some not.  It’s a beautiful work of art in the ways it goes beyond a conventional narrative, which is good, because I found some of the plot to be a bit tired and rushed through.  It’s the one thing about the movie that took me out of the experience, with certain characters a bit too cartoonish for my liking and plot mechanics that enabled the expected emotional beats and general quirkiness of an independent film.

The ways certain characters behave and some of their emotionally climactic moments (particularly for Mont) feel unearned.  The performances are wonderful, but sometimes it feels as though something is missing in between Point A and Point B.  We understand so well Jimmie’s character, what he yearns for, what he fears and what makes him laugh.  But for Mont, he’s a little more vague but I don’t think purposefully so.  He is as compelling a character as Jimmie, as interested in the people and things around him, studying how they work (he aspires to be a playwright/director), but then his arc is tied up a little too neatly in a staged play that feels like something taken out of a young adult movie like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), a movie I quite enjoy but in which the “quirk” often cannibalizes some of the sincerity.

There’s one scene I’m thinking of here in which Mont nearly breaks down as he tries to negotiate with a villainous real estate agent on Jimmie’s behalf.  It’s meant to be the payoff to a whole lot of storytelling, but I never quite bought Mont’s devotion to his friend’s cause, even though they are friends.  We are in Jimmie’s world, so we see the Victorian house the way he does, with the same affection and glowing nostalgia.  But from Mont’s point of view, at least based on how he often acts, this seems like a an amusing characteristic on his friend’s part, that he is so eager to journey across town to make sure his childhood home isn’t falling in disrepair.  He sits by, drawing, while Jimmie paints over the faded windowsills.

So later on when Mont, on the verge of tears, fights on Jimmie’s behalf and then later grows emotional when Jimmie says he’s not leaving the house, it just feels like something’s missing.  Until this point he’s been supportive of his friend, but I never quite bought that he embodied the cause to the same extent as Jimmie.

It’s something that kind of bugged me, but thinking about this movie a day later I’m left thinking more of what worked so well about the movie.  It’s mood, tone, imagery, imagination, social history, etc.  It really is quite sincere and feels only like they at times struggled to construct a three act story around all the more abstract qualities which they are so passionate about.  It’s a movie that bleeds off the screen, the color and sound coming alive in ways not many movies can.

Up Next: Tony Manero (2008), Tender Mercies (1983), Alphaville (1965)

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