A lifelong friendship, gentrification, and an old house come together to make one of the best films of the year so far.
What comes to mind when you think of San Francisco, California?
Most think of the Golden Gate Bridge, the center of the ’60s counterculture movement, the hills overlooking the bay, or even Steph Curry.
If you live there, or have in the past, you think about money. Lots of it. A little known (okay, maybe not little) fact is that it is now one of the most expensive places to live in the entire country.
The average home price is a staggering $1.2 million in San Francisco, according to the Cost of Living Index, and the median home value is the highest among U.S. cities. Renters fare little better. The average rent for an apartment in San Francisco is $3,821 a month.kiplinger.com
You’re probably wondering: “Did I enter a real estate site? What in God’s name am I reading right now?” Don’t worry. This is background to accentuate the point of the film.
Plan B and A24 team up again after the wild success and cultural impact that was Moonlight, with another film about African Americans living in rough circumstances, but trading the beaches of Miami for the fog-fueled bay of San Francisco.
Director Joe Talbot and star of the film Jimmie Fails have been friends for many years, growing up in San Francisco together. They’ve been trying to tell this story–the story of Mr. Fails’ life–for five years before it was actually made.
Being ushered out of his family home at a young age by gentrification, Jimmy Fails was homeless for most of his life. He lived in cars and crashed at friends’ houses. His mother is absent and his father is distant. All he really has in life are his best friend Monty and the family house he grew up in.
Although there’s an older upper class white family living in his old family home now, Jimmie takes care of the house when the owners aren’t around. He repaints it and takes care of the garden, much to the chagrin of the owners once they find out.
The owners are then forced to move out due to a dispute over ownership with relatives, leaving the house empty. Jimmie moves in with Monty and reclaims his family home, but for how long? The film takes time in learning about that discovery.
San Francisco on My Mind
San Francisco has become a city wrestling with its own identity in the past few years. The rapid influx of yuppies and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs has vastly changed the landscape of the city, which used to be a diverse and rich center for the arts and culture.
Gentrification has been an issue plaguing America’s big cities and rarely does a film tackle the issue with such finesse and raw emotion as The Last Black Man in San Francisco. We see the position the African-American community is put in by the housing market and local government through the eyes of Jimmie.
There are many ways to be racist in America and the inequality in the housing market is just one of them.
With such disturbing topics like homelessness and pollution in black communities, it wouldn’t be surprising if this film had the anger of say, Spike Lee or Oliver Stone. And while Lee’s visual style can be seen as an influence (the camera moves a lot in this film), this film is much more gentle and poetic in the emotional way it portrays the characters and the city, which is a character in itself.
And Other Things on My Mind
I saw this at a pre-screening/Q&A with Talbot and Fails. One of the audience members brought up in a beautiful way this film isn’t afraid to show the whole spectrum of black masculinity. We tend to define masculinity as one thing, especially in America, but that definition changes as we go from one ethnicity to the other.
For example, take Jimmie.
He skateboards and usually wears a red plaid shirt and black beanie. Things that in general are considered “not black.” Yet, when he goes to see his father, he puts on clothes that are more like the “style” stereotypical to black men so he can “blend in.” There’s another character Kofi (Jamal Trulove), who plays a huge role in the film, who has face tattoos and acts hard, but can’t even bring himself to harm his friends when pushed to by them.
Monty (Jonathan Majors) is the only character who doesn’t hide who he is. He’s an artist and a playwright. He “talks white” and wears a blazer outside despite the weather (usually very humid and hot). He’s the one who’s true to himself.
The relationships between all of these men–whether they’re being vulnerable or not–is kind of beautiful because of how realistic and visceral they are. Kofi and Jimmie reminisce about their time in a group home and how Kofi defended him from the other boys once. This was the first time Monty heard that Jimmie was even in a group home…and they quickly move onto the next scene.
I think that’s such beautiful moment, and it feels so real. We all learn something important about the protagonist’s past, but it doesn’t feel like exploitation. The film doesn’t treat it like it’s a big deal. That’s what makes it and the rest of the film feel so real.
Some the performances weren’t all the way there, but honestly, it didn’t bother me one bit. The script and the world of the film was there to act as a cushion fall on. The characters felt lived in. It was like The Bicycle Thieves, we’re taking a look through the looking glass into a week in this young man’s life with the Italian neo-realist vibe to boot.
Power to the People
This film gets it, and gets most things right, which is why it’s going to be remembered more than a lot of other movies that have come out this year. I could go on and on about how great the cinematography was (it was sensational), how meticulously crafted the production design (the colors were perfect) was, or the sensational sound design (it knew when to give the characters space, I loved it).
In the end, what’s going to keep the legacy of The Last Black Man in San Francisco going is the characters.
As a directorial debut for Joe Talbot, this film can stand among some of the best debuts like The Night of the Hunter and Eraserhead. The maturity and seemingly easy-going nature of the movie lends itself to the sure-handed direction from Talbot, who seems in his element as if he’s been doing this for many years.
The swooping camera and majestic landscape shots of both the city and the faces of the characters tell me the collaboration between Talbot and his cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra is something worth the price of admission.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco smashes all preconceived notions you had about the issues the film. You think you know what it’s like to see your city–your home–turn against you? You don’t. The filmmakers love the city and we get to see it through their eyes and think, “Damn, that’s a beautiful city.” However, what the filmmakers are most interested in, and what the audience is also more interested in, is the people who populate it and their stories.
And that’s exactly what they did. You’ll leave your heart here for sure.