“You don’t get to hate San Francisco. You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” -Jimmie Fails
Why is it every year there is one film that I miss seeing in theaters that ends up being one of my favorites? It happened last year with Leave No Trace, and I knew it had happened again after the first few shots of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It’s a film about the city, about change and about losing history, but also a visual poem about male friendship.
The script, written by Joe Talbot and Rob Richert, is loosely based on the experiences of the film’s star, Jimmie Fails. As the film opens, we see Jimmie spending time with his friend Montgomery “Mont” Allen (Jonathan Majors). They take a bus to the Fillmore district and visit a classic Victorian house that Jimmie was raised in. Jimmie never misses an opportunity to tell people that his grandfather built the house, and though his family lost the home in the 90s, he still feels responsibility and ownership towards it. For the past three years he has dropped by frequently to touch up the paint or perform other maintenance tasks the middle-aged white couple occupying the home are not keeping up with. One day, Jimmie discovers that the couple has been forced to move out. The house is caught up in a family feud, which a local realtor (Finn Wittrock) says could go on for years. Jimmie and Mont decide to explore the house, and then take up residence.
I won’t discuss the rest of the plot. I didn’t even know that much about the story before I began watching, and there are a few surprises I don’t want to ruin. That said, this is more of a haunting visual feast than a plot heavy narrative. Talbot and Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra make you not only see every nuance of San Francisco, but feel it. The architecture of the Fillmore district comes to life so much that each structure torn down in the name of supposed progress hits us like a death. The beauty of the city Jimmie loves is contrasted by one that he hates; one poisoned by pollution, of gentrification, of techies with no appreciation for what was there before they descended.
If the visuals weren’t stunning enough on their own, Emile Mosseri’s score meshes perfectly with every visual and each character. The score will stick with you, but it’s never distracting. It incorporates every personality, whether human or material, into the notes without going over the top.
This masterpiece would be impressive coming from a veteran director, but this is Talbot’s first feature film! Talbot and Fails began discussing the project when they were teenagers. They launched a successful kickstarter campaign in 2015 to raise enough money to finally bring the story to the screen.
A film about gentrification could easily lend itself to a story about political battles, elections, lawsuits and other tried and true plot points that bigger budget films would probably incorporate to tell this story. That approach could be informative, but it would also be bland and formulaic. What makes The Last Black Man in San Francisco so affecting is its intimacy. Each frame is personal. Jimmie ultimately just wants to go home, and his grandfather’s house is one of the few parts of the city that still resembles home.
I imagine my appreciation for this film will only grow with each additional viewing. It would be a shame to only experience this work once. It’s a vivid and heartbreaking tribute to a disappearing place and the people who will mourn it.