The debut feature film from Joe Talbot (director) and Jimmie Fails (star), The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a labor of love in every sense of the word, a story these two childhood friends have been crafting for years. While it seems like acclaim and adoration have found them overnight (at least, since its premiere at Sundance earlier this year), only a project that has been nurtured and developed and nudged along with the greatest of care and attention to detail could become a final product as fine and well-crafted as this. Rivaling the likes of Barry Jenkins and his remarkable filmmaking in Moonlight, The Last Black Man in San Francisco displays a confidence of perspective and an inventiveness in storytelling that, once its done breaking your heart, will only leave you wanting more.
Fails stars as a version of himself (write what you know, of course), a young man in San Francisco getting by with his trusty skateboard, a best friend and a job at a retirement home. But he’s stuck in the past to a large degree, a significant portion of his attention devoted to a gorgeous old Victorian house (mansion?) in the city’s historic Fillmore District where he and his family lived when he was a boy. Family legend has it that Jimmie’s grandfather built the house with his own hands, making it all the more devastating for the family to lose it as San Francisco’s gentrification found their neighborhood and sent living costs skyrocketing. Now, Jimmie visits the house once a week or so, touching up paint or raking leaves, tending to it much like he does his elderly charges, never mind that the white baby boomers who live there now would prefer he keep away.
When the house falls out of their possession as well, Jimmie seizes the moment to claim the now-empty place for himself. With help from Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), the best friend whose floor Jimmie has been crashing on, and an aunt (Tichina Arnold) who saved much of the home’s furnishings when the family was displaced, the old Victorian starts to come together as a manifestation of Jimmie’s nostalgia, a yearning for a time long since passed. He offers Mont, a poet, playwright and fishmonger at a local market, his pick of the rooms to move into and, in a magical moment that’s as odd as it is whimsical, Mont chooses the dining room. The relationship between these two sensitive, thoughtful young men is as breathtaking to behold as Jimmie’s relationship to the house. They navigate their ordinary lives with an extraordinary sense of place, each of them rooted for generations in the city and each of them fiercely determined, sometimes in their own quiet ways and sometimes much more loudly, to be heard and seen as residents of a city, and perhaps a world, that’s outgrown them.
Films like The Last Black Man in San Francisco are not made for their fast-paced plot or rapid-fire dialogue; in fact, the movie meanders so lovingly over the course of full two-hour runtime the happenings become more of an unfolding of circumstance than a driven plot line from point A to point B. We visit with Mont’s blind grandfather Allen (Danny Glover, in an absolutely heartwarming performance), watching movies together (Mont describes what’s happening to Allen with such love and patiences, it’s palpable) or soaking up his wisdom. We get glimpses of the rougher realities facing San Franciscan’s who can’t keep up with gentrification, from gun violence to less-than-legal hustles to make a living. Through it all, a deeply melodramatic score by Emile Mosseri keeps us tethered to every emotional beat.
Eventually, Jimmie is forced to face some difficult truths about his own past, his family’s history with the house and whatever future he and Mont want to build for themselves. It’s a complicated mess of emotions that twenty-somethings (or anyone who’s been a twenty-something) know well: a longing for the way things used to be combined with an intense desire to improve the situation, to contribute something that will outlast this life. Jimmie sums it up to a stranger on the bus, insisting, “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” As Talbot and Fails see it—and as they portray so beautifully—the “it” we’re all seeking, love it or hate it or sometimes both, is a home.