- The Last Black Man in San Francisco
- Directed by: Joe Talbot
- Written by: Joe Talbot and Rob Richert
- Starring: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors and Danny Glover
- Classification: 14A; 121 minutes
Does anyone trust the Sundance film festival any more? In the past few years, so many films have premiered at the top of the mountain to almost unbelievable hype (The Birth of a Nation, Patti Cake$, this year’s Late Night), only to crash on the climb back down to earth. It was with that skepticism that I walked into The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the feature directorial debut of Joe Talbot and a darling of this past January’s Sundance, where it won the award for best director and a special jury prize for “creative collaboration.”
Either Talbot’s work is the exception to the high-altitude-hype Sundance rule or it marks some sort of turning point for the festival. Whatever the case, the drama is an endlessly inventive and devastating work, a lyrical ode to a city that has turned its back on its most devoted citizens.
Jimmie Fails, Talbot’s long-time friend who also collaborated on the film’s screenplay, stars as “Jimmie Fails,” a ne’er-do-well who spends his days obsessively taking care of a grand old San Francisco house that he once inhabited, before his family’s narrative arc turned to tragedy. Along with his wanna-be playwright friend Mont (Jonathan Majors, a true discovery), Jimmie makes daily pilgrimages to the home, tending to its garden, freshening up its peeling paint job and wondering when, if at all, he might be able to go home again.
Miraculously, that opportunity arrives sooner than anyone would expect, with the estate’s white homeowners forced to abandon the property because of a real estate squabble. Soon enough, Jimmie and Mont are debating the finer points of squatter’s rights and playing house, even if the entire effort is more daydream than reality.
Yet, boiling Talbot’s film down to a tidy plot summary is pointless, as the director, Fails and their various collaborators are far more interested in using the film to examine a city losing itself from the inside out. The filmmakers clearly have an affinity for their setting, peppering the film with clips from, say, the 1949 San Fran noir classic D.O.A. and a beautifully mournful rendition of Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), but also an unmistakable disgust for what it has become. Namely: a playground for Segway-riding tech-bros who bristle at the real history of the place, and a no-go zone for its increasingly isolated and marginalized black community.
There are a few ways in which a film can tackle the tragicomedy that is gentrification, and a handful of recent movies have taken their own approaches, with varying degrees of success – from the incendiary anger of Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Blindspotting to the righteous, over-the-top satire of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You to the fairy-tale whatchamacallit of Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. If you had to slot The Last Black Man in San Francisco somewhere within that disparate group, Talbot’s work would lay in the middle. But that’s not a bad place to be, given how delicately the director and his team balance dark comedy with heartbreaking nostalgia, the human drama given extra life by a fantastic score and slick, surreal visuals.
There will likely be many essays to come examining how a white director like Talbot could helm a film called The Last Black Man in San Francisco. And deservedly so – just because a film takes issue with a city’s racial erasure does not mean it’s immune to that same discussion. But there is something irrepressibly original and exciting in the collaboration that results between Talbot, Fails and co-writer Rob Richert – a cinematic vision that feels as fresh as it does necessary.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco opens July 5 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net).
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