The Last Black Man In San Francisco - Review
The tale of two friends in San Francisco is as heartbreaking as it is necessary.
Leaving a life-long dream behind is like leaving a child. For many high school students preparing for college, the realization that some futures are not available to them calls into question the adults, peers, and parents that always used to say “go for it!” In the face of such suffocating circumstances, it wouldn’t be abnormal for a young hopeful to convince themselves that they can go for it; The Last Black Man in San Francisco embodies those dreams, carefully dissecting the lies we tell ourselves, and how they affect the people who care enough to go along with them.
Director Joe Talbot and writer Jimmie Fails, who plays himself in this dramatized version of his life, form a stylistic bond that hasn’t been seen since Moonlight. San Francisco is ripe for interpretation, and The Last rightfully gives it time to develop. Opening with shots of the bay, contaminated beaches, and the gorgeous architecture that calls Fails’ name, a strong presence is established and subsequently deconstructed.
Fails is a hopeful, longing for a chance to occupy his grandfather’s house on Fillmore Street. The house, a sprawling three-story with multiple balconies and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, is worth $4 million. As the central figure of the film, it’s crucial that the house feels both lived in, abandoned and historic, elements the production team flawlessly execute, prompted by story beats that see Jimmie and his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) reconnecting with Jimmie’s scattered family. The fact that the house on Fillmore was not built by Jimmie’s grandfather isn’t important yet.
As soon as The Last begins pivoting toward Montgomery, the story starts to take form. Influenced by eccentrics who preach from food crates and a posse of ball-busting friends outside his house, Montgomery is as conflicted a playwright as any literary-minded character. Seen drafting in short bursts throughout the film, Majors plays the socially awkward friend exceptionally. A dichotomy is forged as Jimmie tirelessly sacrifices his life and family in pursuit of a dream, while his friend does the same, albeit in less destructive ways.
Montgomery’s play, which gives the film its title, arrives at a moment in the story where Jimmie is both inspired and defeated; ready to be knocked down at any moment by a knock at the door, or the reminder that what he’s been chasing was never truly his. Montgomery’s peculiar tendencies and stunted demeanor suddenly shed for a magnificent display of mourning over the recent death of a friend, the city of San Francisco, and Jimmie’s dream. After quietly existing in the background, his purposeful moment at center-stage takes hold for just long enough to remind you that what’s happening has not necessarily been for the best.
The Last is full of insights into the black experience, poverty, peer pressure, and family. Jimmie’s life isn’t fractured for any one reason; the compounding effect of his neglectful father and a city that’s eager to give a break to anyone but a black man bars him from claiming what he believes is his. In a scene that encapsulates the entire film, Jimmie sits atop the mythologized house, finally occupying it thanks to a vacated owner, looking down on a group of segway-riding tourists. The pitifully white bread tour guide automatically mentions the year and style of the home, as Jimmie interrupts with the story of his highly-motivated grandfather. The house was not built 100 years ago, but in the 40s by a black man with an idea. As others seem eager to discredit his grandfather’s accomplishment, Jimmie places no value on the fact that he is lying to everyone he meets, even himself.
It’s a difficult wall to scale, worsened after imagining for a moment what it might be like as a black man in a large city infamous for its treatment of minorities. The privilege of a home so beautiful seems too good to be true, but Jimmie’s insistence implies hope; a break in the stereotype the bigotted are eager to defend. At a certain point truth becomes less important than the story Jimmie tells and, as the audience, we find ourselves cheering the possibility of a narrative rather than its actual existence. The film concludes with Jimmie leaving the city that never valued him enough to give him a chance, but Montogomery’s achievement is just as crucial a resting image. In the midst of trying to get his friend into a home that’s not his, living in a crawl space, and spending most nights with his near-blind father (Danny Glover), he accomplishes a work of art that stuns, and reminds; reminds of the fact that lies eventually need to be unspooled in order to move past them, and into whatever future is attainable.