‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ Review: A Masterful Display of Empathy and Love

Through striking visuals, a gorgeous soundtrack, and compassionate characters, Joe Talbot’s directorial debut The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a poignant and timely Bay Area film. Feeling all too familiar for the natives of the City by the Bay, while still servicing as a sense of home and what that means today for anyone else.

Talbot, a Bay Area native, who clearly knows his city, constructs an endless string of moments and experiences into a tightly bound painting of a painful and honest take on gentrification in San Francisco. Jimmie Fails, the film’s star and Talbot; childhood friends, created the story, but it is primarily based on Fails’ upbringing. An emotional and moving ride of experiences shared and personal, of lives large and small, and worlds ours and other, this is a 2019 film that will need consumption many times.

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Jimmie peers into the home he can’t have. -A24

Jimmie Fails IV wants to move into a house in the Fillmore, once called the Harlem of the west, but it is now subject to the fate many San Francisco neighborhoods have fallen for; gentrification. Jimmie claims the house was built in 1947 by his grandfather, who many say is the first Black Man of San Francisco. Jimmie has neither the funds or ability to do this easily, so, he squats. He does what few succeed in, he fights for what is his. The story unfolds in ways I will leave unspoiled, but the journey we take with Jimmie is, in a way, his spiritual awakening. What Jimmie wants is simple; he wants his home. This “want ” pulls the audience into the story in the most subtle way.

What Jimmie wants, and what Jimmie discovers is what many residents current or former are discovering as well. That sometimes your home doesn’t have space for you anymore. That someone may come and twist what you love, suck it dry of everything you once remembered, leaving behind a shiny lump of glass and money. This isn’t a loving story or one that finds a happy ending, but it a true story, and a story that is happening every day across the United States. It is a story that needs to be told and even more, a story that needs to be heard.

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Mont and Jimmie should be nominated for best on-screen best friends of 2019 -A24

What Talbot, and the two lead actors, Fails, and Jonathan Majors achieve is a complete and total understanding of an experience a people and a place. It explores the San Francisco experience, it explores the African-American experience, it explores the modern experience. To say you love The Last Black Man in San Francisco isn’t quite putting it right; audiences will feel this film. You feel the pains, the sorrows, the issues, and experience. You will feel all of the points and stabs and truths this film reaches. The best line in the film is when Jimmie says to two MUNI riders, “you can’t hate something if you don’t love it.”

The final brilliant stroke The Last Black Man in San Francisco gets right is the relationship between Mont (Majors) and Jimmie. A relationship between two black males that is emotional, vulnerable, and honest. It leaves tropes and stereotypes at the door, as it plays Jimmie and Mont out as two living breathing real people. Their story is a  dangerously delicate story, and one of such that if you blink, or look away, you may fall out of its spell. If you don’t however, you may discover something about yourself you never knew existed. It is a journey Talbot, Fails, and Majors takes you on; a journey of understanding and pain. An encapturing and moving experience that consumes you slowly and carefully. 

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Danny Glover plays a brief, but impactful role as Mont’s grandfather. -A24

The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s exploration of masculine fragility and vulnerability between two male characters is done right and done in a way that doesn’t feel cliche or forced. It is all natural, all real, and all here. Jimmie and Mont are best friends and find comfort and safety in each others company, but the fascinating vulnerability and closeness they share is something that is rarely explored in the film, and often laughed at in real life, especially between two black males.

Other characters during the movie call them out on their bond and say that they must shower together as well as say they can not be separated. Through these aggressive antagonists in their life, they still manage to be there for one another. Mont and Jimmie are companions to the very end.

Through a careful exploration of empathy and care, The Last Black Man in San Francisco manages to capture the San Francisco experience nearly perfectly. This story shows how successful it can be when you write about what you know. This is a familiar story for many and is something they live through every day. With the price of living in the Bay Area booming, many find their homes and worlds crumbling before them. The Last Black Man in San Francisco tries to find a solution to this, and in the end, doesn’t hand us the answer to our problems. It does, however, leave you with a powerful note: Fight. Fight until the end for what is yours and what you love.

★★★★ 1/2

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