It’s one of the most photographed cities in the world, but “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” offers a unique view of the City by the Bay.
It’s a San Francisco, seen from the perspective Jimmie Fails, a third-generation African American San Franciscan who is the star and co-writer of the screenplay. Though his character bears Fails’ name and the picture is autobiographical, it’s not a documentary. Fails and co-screenwriter Rob Richert have embroidered on his experiences to create a story that melds realism with make-believe.
It’s a ground-level San Francisco, viewed from a skateboard, a bus stop, sidewalks. A scuffed-up San Francisco where a street preacher harangues from atop a milk carton, where five young street guys jaw together at all hours like a Greek chorus and where an elderly street singer delivers a plaintive version of the ’60s pop hit “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” They’re people living on society’s margins in a city gentrifying at a rapid rate.
Joe Talbot, a longtime close friend of Fails making his directorial debut, and director of photography Adam Newport-Berra give the picture a look and a pacing that feels utterly distinctive.
It’s a San Francisco seen from the perspective of a man who is both an insider and an outsider. Fails, the native son with deep roots in the city, is also a man displaced. There he sits at the start at a bus stop, looking across the street at the classic Victorian house in the Fillmore District where he and his family once lived but were forced to leave years before due to reverses in their financial circumstances. He has little money. Apparently in his late 20s and unemployed, he gets around on a skateboard.
He’s an outsider, looking in at the place where his fondest memories were birthed. He refuses to put those memories on the shelf. Though at the start the house is owned by an elderly white couple, he sneaks in when they’re not home and paints the outside trim, much to the irritation of the woman of the house. When financial difficulties force the couple out, the place stands empty. But not for long.
Fails and his best buddy, Mont (Jonathan Majors) — who ekes out a living as a fishmonger and aspires to be a playwright and an artist — break in and take up residence. Their situation is precarious. They know it won’t be long before the place is put up for sale, but for a while Jimmie is home again, at last.
The picture is the story of a friendship and a love affair. The friendship between Jimmie and Mont is strong and deep. They’re on the same wavelength. They talk together endlessly. At the start, they share a bedroom in the home of Mont’s grandfather, played by Danny Glover. They do not, however, share a bed. They’re friends, not lovers. There seem to be no secrets between them. Yet there is, a deep and crucial one. The acting by the two principals is impeccable, their portrait of male friendship is deeply felt.
The love affair is between Jimmie and that house. It’s stately. It’s a sanctuary. It’s his salvation. He says his dedication to the house gave his life purpose and kept him from suffering the fate of one of the members of the street chorus, gunned down off-screen in a gang shooting.
It’s, above all, a symbol of Jimmie’s hopes for the future. He dreams of being somehow able to own it. The dream is built on hope — and the hope is so strong it shapes and distorts his perception of his family’s history. Believing something to be so, he learns, doesn’t necessarily make it so, no matter how strong the desire to believe.
★★★★ “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” with Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover. Directed by Joe Talbot, from a screenplay by Fails and Rob Richert. 120 minutes. Rated R for language, brief nudity and drug use. Opens June 20 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.