'The Last Black Man in San Francisco': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Peter Prato/A24
A highly original and impressive feature debut.

Joe Talbot's film revolves around two black San Francisco natives struggling to retain a connection to their fast-changing hometown.

A new work joins the ranks of great San Francisco films with The Last Black Man in San Francisco. A fresh and original story of two outcasts in a city where they grew up but which has changed dramatically, Joe Talbot’s debut feature powerfully ponders the question of whether you can go home again once you’ve lost it. The film’s special qualities combined with the muscle of executive producer Brad Pitt’s Plan B company guarantees that this artful work won’t get lost in the shuffle of the dozens of Sundance premieres. A significant festival career looks likely prior to a carefully planned commercial launch.

With an opening that features land- and waterscapes that won’t be readily recognizable as San Francisco to anyone but locals, along with soundtrack dialogue of what sounds like the great 1949 San Francisco-set film noir D.O.A., Talbot begins on a note of dislocation. It’s a feeling that besets his two protagonists, both of whom are black. Jimmie Fails, playing a “character” with the self-same name, is no longer a kid but still rides his skateboard around town. Once a week, he and his sports-jacketed buddy Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) head to a gorgeous old home in the Fillmore district, where they of their own volition paint and otherwise try to fix up the house, at least until they’re run off by one of the current occupants.

Jimmie insists that his grandfather built the Victorian mansion and that his dream is to fix it up and live in it again. Montgomery, who works as a fishmonger, lives in cramped quarters with his grandpa (Danny Glover) and, one presumes, has an active interior life.

The film jumps around from place to place in the city and its outskirts, particularly Hunter’s Point and outlying areas from which downtown resembles Oz from a distance. The narrative focuses at times on what seem like isolated, random events, but something vital animates nearly every scene of this portrait of people living on the fringes. These include Jimmie’s father (a powerful Rob Morgan), a bitter man his son rarely sees and who’s just one step removed from the streets.

Talbot’s sophisticated storytelling technique is mostly employed in the service of themes relating to the fracturing of family, the power of friendship, roots lost and regained and the elusiveness of stability, permanence and the concept of home in contemporary urban society.

What drives Jimmie’s every waking moment is regaining his family’s past by taking over the big old house. When the resident couple moves out, Jimmie, who has already repainted some of the exterior, has Montgomery move in with him, thereby establishing in his own mind a sort of squatter’s right to the property.

There are quietly hilarious moments, including one showing an historic San Francisco architectural tour being conducted on Segways and others done to the accompaniment of "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" and "Go Where You Wanna Go." Other, more poignant or nostalgic moments also turn up, as when Jimmie remembers his grandfather having been known as “the first black man in San Francisco.” And it’s a bit startling when Jimmie has to admit that he doesn’t even have a phone in this capital of high tech. More explosive interludes involve a group of sort-of street thugs who seem like more bark than bite until they don’t.

But even with the many detours and digressions, the main focus remains the house. The longer he and the taciturn Montgomery are there, the more Jimmie believes he’s fulfilled his dream of recapturing his family legacy, thus providing a sense of continuity and belonging that’s long been out of reach. This plays out in ways that are both surprisingly melodramatic and then poignant, as Talbot floats simultaneous ambitious themes of the past recaptured, horizons expanded and reality regained.

All the dramatic components have not only been well thought out by Talbot and co-writer Rob Richert, but they’re adorned, for the most part, by a sense of reality that keeps pretentiousness at bay. To be sure, this is a highly calculated and worked-out story, but the humor and lively playing of the entire cast keeps the film aloft across its two hours.

According to the program notes, something close to this story was actually lived by leading actor Fails. To say that he’s engaging and exciting to watch is an understatement. His friend and foil Montgomery is played by Majors on a low heat that takes nearly the pic’s entire length to boil. The supporting cast is impeccable down the line.

All the creative and technical contributions are top-drawer, notably Adam Newport-Berra’s richly colored cinematography, Jona Tochet’s production design, which most importantly includes the many transformations the venerable old house goes through, and Emile Mosseri’s apt score.

Production companies: A24, Longshot Features, Plan B Entertainment
Distribution: A24
Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps, Finn Wittrock, Danny Glover, Willie Hen, Jamal Truvole

Director: Joe Talbot
Screenwriters: Joe Talbot, Rob Richert; story by Jonathan Majors, Joe Talbot
Producers: Khaliah Neal, Joe Talbot, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christine Oh
Executive producers: Brad Pitt, Sarah Esberg, Kimberly Parker
Director of photography: Adam Newport-Berra
Production designer: Jona Tochet
Costume designer: Amanda Ramirez
Editor: David Marks
Music: Emile Mosseri
Casting: Julia Kim
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

120 minutes