- 22 Oct 19
Elegiac lament about legacy, connection and loss.
Admittedly, director Joe Talbot’s love letter mood-piece about San Francisco, my home for years, was always going to make me cry. Talbot and co-writer and star Jimmie Fails are both San Franciscans, and their vision is alternately sharpened and softened by the city’s complicated relationship with change and gentrification. Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra’s golden hues capture the unique romance of the city, while a slow, anthropological gaze highlights its oddities and contradictions.
Derelict buildings stand beside multi-million dollar mansions. People enjoying the city’s historic pro-nudity laws now face a barrage of homophobic abuse. White people don hazmat suits to clean the water that served Black neighbourhoods for generations.
There’s an anxiety to the constant sense of change; a danger you will be completely erased from the city in its latest rewrite. Jimmie (Fails) quietly resists, obsessively and lovingly repairing the beautiful Victorian home built by his grandfather in the Filmore district. Except, he doesn’t own the house – his family were displaced years ago, and Jimmie grew up in shelters and group homes. A white couple live there now, exasperatedly throwing overpriced croissants at Jimmie whenever he turns up.
Jimmie’s efforts echo the grand, problematic gestures of romance films: he is holding up a boombox, convinced the house possesses the key to his happiness. But while understandably trying to preserve his past and invest in his desired future, he’s neglecting his present.
Fails’ performance is quiet and soulful, while his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors), and a Greek chorus of Black men, more explicitly address issues of male friendship, toxic masculinity and belonging. The dialogue and action are understated, as Talbot relies on atmosphere to create a wistful lament.
“You can’t hate something if you didn’t love it first,” says Jimmie. He’s referring to the city, but he could be referring to a lover, a family, or humanity. Though it may prove too slow and opaque for some, The Last Black Man In San Francisco is a heartbreaking elegy elevated by specificity, but universal in its emotion. When holding on to something beloved hurts, it’s so hard to know when to endure, and when to let go.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is in cinemas October 25.