Joe Talbot | 121 mins | digital (HD) | 1.66:1 | USA / English | 15 / R
The opening few minutes of The Last Black Man in San Francisco are some of the most visually extraordinary I remember seeing from a film in a while. Well, it begins with two men waiting at a bus stop, but when the bus doesn’t arrive… cinema happens. If the rest of the film had been terrible, I’d have been ok with watching it just to have seen that.
Those two men at the bus stop are Jimmie Fails (played by Jimmie Fails, also co-writer, in a role I assume can’t be entirely autobiographical, but who knows) and his best friend Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), an artist and writer who always has a pencil behind his ear, who’s always sketching or jotting. Every day, Jimmie and Mont visit the same old house in a gentrified neighbourhood of San Francisco, which Jimmie is obsessed with maintaining and restoring because he doesn’t think the current owners do a good enough job.
Of course, the reason for Jimmie’s monomania is more complicated than “it’s a nice house”, but oh my, is it a nice house. In terms of “significant houses in 2019 movies”, a fair few people seemed to be in love with the one from Parasite, but give me this beautiful old mansion-like home any day. It even has a built-in organ! I mean, a built-in organ isn’t exactly high on my list of ‘wants’ in a house, but it’s kinda cool. (To be fair, based on the amount of upkeep Jimmie feels the house needs and that its owners shirk, I doubt I’d be up to the task of looking after such a place. But I’m not going to be buying one anyway, so it’s a nice little fantasy.)
But this isn’t property porn, and deep down Jimmie’s really looking for more than just this particular building. Other characters seem similarly at a loss. It’s likely important to note that writer-director Joe Talbot and Fails, who came up with the story together, are native San Franciscans who grew up together and discussed making the movie since they were teenagers. The film is not just about the changing face of San Francisco, but that’s definitely part of the mix. Indeed, I’m sure there are several readings of what Last Black Man is ‘about’. Another, related part of it is the black experience (I mean, there’s a clue in the title), including a street preacher bemoaning a hazardous cleanup operation; an acquaintance who lives in his car; Jimmie’s absentee father (played by the reliably excellent Rob Morgan, who you may recognise from all of Netflix’s Marvel series, and who has another small but key role in the just-released Greyhound); and a group of men who hang around outside Mont’s house, apparently with nothing better to do than argue with each other. The latter, in particular, have a key role to play in where the story ultimately goes.
Another aspect is to do with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Our past isn’t just a series of indisputable facts, but a mix of memories — which themselves are self-selected narratives — and stories we’ve been told by others and assumed into our identities, possibly giving them more significance than was intended. It’s this kind of mythologising that drives Jimmie, and it clashing with reality is part of the catalyst for the film’s resolution. As I said, events involving that group of guys outside Mont’s place (no spoilers!) also have a major part to play, but it again come round to the way our lives, and others’, are dictated by how we choose to tell our and their stories.
How this story is told is one of its strongest aspects. The cinematography by Adam Newport-Berra is extraordinary; not in a glaringly obvious “pretty colours” way, but exhibiting superb depth of field, framing, composition, movement… My knowledge is inadequate to convey the rich quality and wonder of the imagery he creates. It, literally, has to be seen. Several distinctive sequences are carved by his work combined with David Marks’ editing and Emile Mosseri’s score, which includes some well-aimed needle drops and remixes (it’s always great to hear Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, which is here rendered in a strikingly stripped-back form remixed by Mosseri).
If I have one criticism it’s that it felt a little long, with some scenes seemingly superfluous, but I’m fully prepared to accept I may have just missed their point. And even with that, the total effect is enough to overcome any perceived longueurs. My score rounds up, then, because even if it’s not perfect (what is?), it’s very good overall, and several parts are truly exceptional.