This year has been something of a down year at the movies in comparison to 2018. That’s not to say that there haven’t been any good films so far but I can name more contenders for Worst Movie of the Year than I can Best Picture candidates. The year is typically backloaded with films eyeing awards season but it’s felt like summer movie season since February. Seemingly lost in the fray, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a swirling, dreamlike story of friendship set against the backdrop of a changing city.
While the film’s title spoon feeds you the gentrification narrative, it would be a drastic oversimplification to say that’s all it’s about. Powerful themes of friendship, self-discovery, the emotional cost of toxic masculinity, the concept of ownership, and the impermeable desire for “home” play essential parts in this ethereal odyssey. Of course, criticism of the rapid gentrification sweeping through San Francisco is at the center of this tale but it serves as the foundation for an intensely personal story as well.
From everything I’ve read, the film is an amalgam of the lives of Writer/Director Joe Talbot and his childhood friend Jimmie Fails who co-wrote the story and stars as himself in the lead role. The intimacy of their friendship jumps off the screen thanks to an unfettered and vulnerable script by Talbot and Rob Richert. The dialogue has an uncanny level of humanity that’s completely disarming and incredibly inviting for the audience. We follow Jimmie and his friend Montgomery as they navigate the vast city on a skateboard en route to perform maintenance work on Fails’ family home. The only problem is that the house isn’t in his family anymore and the new owners aren’t so keen on him painting the window trim and pruning the bushes. This is where the journey begins.
TLBMISF is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful films I’ve seen in quite some time and it’s easy to see Talbot is a visionary filmmaker…even in his debut. Influences from Barry Jenkins are apparent as the visual footprint is wonderfully vibrant and distinctly warm…as if the audience is being welcomed inside Talbot’s personal romanticization of his home in the Bay Area. The mindful painting of the city is enhanced by Adam Newport-Berra’s astute cinematography. All the shots are artfully crafted with an affinity for oddly framed close-ups and broad establishing shots to showcase the unique character of San Francisco. The addition of an immensely powerful and evocative original score by Emile Mosseri helped craft the emotional cues for this fairy-tale world despite some of the more grim elements in play and, listening to it again, I hear influences from The Wizard of Oz. Even with many of the heavy hitters yet to step to the plate, nods for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score are all on the table.
Not lost among the technical proficiencies, Jonathan Majors was phenomenal as Montgomery. An eccentric genius rumored to be modeled after Talbot, the up-and-coming star is mesmerizing. He plays the role with such intense self-security and personal ownership, it’s tough not to admire him. We see flashes of his mind at work throughout the film, probably a bit of self-aggrandizement on Talbot’s part, but it flows with such beautiful symmetry that it’s easy to forgive. The story of the film and the story within it work with a robust synergy that only gets stronger when you learn about the production. Majors is the fuel for the fire and he burns brightest during the film’s intensely personal climax. This young man deserves all the accolades that come his way in the wake of this portrayal and Best Supporting Actor is well within his reach.
This movie wouldn’t be much without its leading man, Jimmie Fails. After all, he’s playing himself. It’s an ominous moniker for a character who is clearly trying so hard but ultimately appropriate. Fails is the soul of this film, pure and simple. His pensive longing and childlike exuberance communicate the problematic reimagining of his city and the hope we strive to have. It’s an elegant performance if not outwardly commanding like that of Majors. For his first full-length feature role, and a starring one at that, Fails certainly didn’t. I don’t think it will quite hold up as the rest of the year unfolds but he’s certainly in line for my Breakthrough Performer award.
Important supporting roles from Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, and Rob Morgan cast a beautiful shadow on the main characters. Glover plays Montgomery’s elderly blind grandfather…a metaphor of sorts…who literally can’t see what’s happening in the city around him. They sit together in a cramped living room of a dilapidated house, across from a highly polluted harbor, watching old movies that Mont narrates while Jimmie sits quietly on the floor…highlighting the experience as both loving and painful. Arnold plays the loving Aunt Wanda who is the Fails’ family historian in many ways. Her stash of furniture from the old house is still intact and she has an unspoken bond with Jimmie, providing the one loving relationship we see for him. It’s important to note that she stands in opposition to Morgan’s depiction of James, Jimmie’s father. In their early interaction, it’s tough to tell whether he loves his son or not but as you learn about the character you realize the narrative isn’t so simple. James was one of the early victims of gentrification and, fighting for his livelihood, he lost his home while caring for a young boy. These three characters provide important context for the boys and for the history of the city.
There has been an interesting trend in films coming out of the Bay Area. Last year, Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You were also unique tales about the effects of gentrification on individuals in those communities. There’s quite a lot going on in this particular film and I don’t want to give it all away. If what you have read so far seems interesting, go experience it for yourself. This was never going to be an overwhelming financial success but through the first month in release, it’s barely made $2-million. However, the box office revenue has increased in each of the first three weeks of release. Not everyone is going to like this but remember, word of mouth is important.
Recommendation: If you enjoy Barry Jenkins’ work, you will most likely appreciate the craftsmanship that went into this project. Fans of filmmaking and film students may have a particular affinity for it. It seems to be picking up momentum as word gets around but go see it while you can.