There is no shortage of beautiful images in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, from the Golden Gate Bridge engulfed in the gray morning fog to the flowers growing by the city’s shipyard. But the loveliest is a Victorian house located in the city’s Fillmore district — a tall, angular white structure lined in red and gold trim covered in fish-scale shingles and topped off with a conical “witch’s hat” tower peaking above it all. The building’s beauty is a matter of strong architectural ingenuity, but also a matter of one’s perspective. When you see the house — carefully framed and composed, like every single shot here — you all but feel the filmmaker’s affection streaming through the camera. They are the lead actor, Jimmie Fails, and the director, Joe Talbot, longtime friends and native San Franciscans collaborating on their first feature. Together they bring a delicate sensibility to this aching story of identity, community and the deep yearning for home. That home, that community is San Francisco, a city home to a diverse cross-section of American people, many of whom are being forced to move elsewhere due to the worst housing crises in the country.
Jimmie Fails IV — a character named for the first-time actor who’s playing a character based on himself — is one of those people. He spent the good part of his childhood in the aforementioned Victorian house. The story goes that his grandfather, the self-proclaimed “first black man in San Francisco,” built the place with his own two hands in 1946. But the Fails family couldn’t afford to keep it; Jimmie, like so many other people in the city, was forced to move on before he was ready.
Jonathan Majors & Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Jimmie’s stately, soulful gaze is matched by that of his best friend, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), a constant companion who lets him crash on the floor of his cramped bedroom every night. Early on we follow the two of them as they ride together on Jimmie’s skateboard and make their way along the waterfront, into the heart of a pulsing city with which they feel increasingly out of step. Their alienation is not strictly a matter of racial difference. Jimmie and Mont, both working class African Americans in their twenties, may cast occasional puzzled glances at the inrush of young, affluent white residents in their rapidly gentrifying city. But they also don’t really fit in with the other black guys in their neighborhood, several of whom come together on the same street every day, like a kind of cheerfully trash-talking Greek chorus.
Jimmie and Mont are quieter in nature. Mont works as a fishmonger, but he’s also an aspiring artist and playwright; we often see him drawing in his red sketchbook and watching classic movies on TV, summarizing the plot for his blind grandfather (Danny Glover). Jimmie works as an elder-care nurse, though his real job is preserving the memory of his Victorian childhood home. Years after his father (a simmering Rob Morgan) lost the property, Jimmie still regularly drops by to touch up the paint and tend to the garden, much to the annoyance of the house’s current occupants. But when one day the house is abruptly vacated and put on the market, Jimmie seizes his opportunity and secretly moves in with Mont, working tirelessly to restore the place to its former glory. Seemingly a squatter’s paradise, the house with its antique furnishings and finite woodwork is much more than that. More of a rich repository of old memories and mythologies, as well as an argument that true ownership transcends a title or deed.
Jimmie’s story is all too specific and personal to be dismissed as a simple narrative of socioeconomic discontent. Jimmie and Mont may be reserved on the surface, but their emotions find expression in their work — a play Mont is writing, the labor Jimmie pours into the house — but also in the filmmaking, in the intense, sumptuous hues of Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography — who along with Talbot’s direction shoots this film in a woozy, dryly comedic style, being a strong mix of both Spike Jonze and Spike Lee —, in the spellbinding, majestic strains of Emile Mosseri’s score. Fails, especially for a first time actor, has the kind of effortless, openhearted screen presence that lays it all out in the most subtle of ways. He and Majors throughout achieve the engaging chemistry and understated pathos of a great-silent comedy duo. Majors on his own, though, achieves an incredible sense of vulnerability and a slow-growing anguish in every gaze that strikes an indelible amount of emotions.
With the exception of an opportunistic real-estate agent (Finn Wittrock) who is the closest thing here to a conventional villain, nearly every character we meet suggests a deep inner life beyond what’s in the frame. Which includes Jimmie and Mont’s friend Kofi (Jamal Trulove), one of many individuals who subtly dismantles whatever assumptions the audience may have about black masculinity. There’s also a street preacher (Willie Hen) whose sermons are mostly unheard rebukes to the public’s complacency. We see them all in the same non-judgmental light, standing and walking among the same sphere, The Last Black Man in San Francisco slows the world down just enough for us to feel it changing.
Jimmie Fails & Jonathan Majors in The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Home is always much easier to find when it’s an actual place. And yet, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a special film for how bravely it sets its characters for a future where most of us can only belong to each other. It’s a film that’s as sad for its city as it is for all of the people who can no longer afford to live there. It’s a patchwork of impressions, ruminations and unsolved mysteries, full of and even overflowing with life and love, some of which might argue at the cost of narrative focus. Yet, that strikes me as precisely the point. Leisurely in its rhythms and urgently political in its concerns, the movie stands in humble, defiant stance against the forces that are shaping too much of our own contemporary reality. You don’t truly know something — a city, a house, a life or a work of art — until you meander through it. A soul-gripping elegy of wry, melancholic enchantment, The Last Black Man in San Francisco will assuredly end up as one of the best films of 2019.