The beginning of The Last Black Man in San Francisco will probably be my favorite opening sequence in a film all year.
A young girl with a lollipop—its color an almost otherworldly red—encounters men in hazmat suits by the bay. She skips away in the morning light past a street preacher whose congregation consists of two men waiting for a bus. They are Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), the film’s protagonists, who sit amused amid the weeds and wild vegetation along a hill at the side of a barely traveled road. Eventually the two friends take a slow-motion skateboard ride through the streets of San Francisco. Bystanders turn to them registering different emotions (I recall looks of joy, suspicion, surprise, and confusion) accompanied by the sumptuous, soaring churn from Michael Nyman’s “MGV.”
Every now and then, a movie (or at least part of it) feels like something completely novel, as if stumbling into a new world or hearing a unique voice or being struck by an uncanny sensation. That’s the effect this opening moment from The Last Black Man in San Francisco had on me.
It’s a kind of magic. It’s also impossible to sustain. To some extent, my feelings about the rest of The Last Black Man in San Francisco live in the shadow of this brilliant opening.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Director: Joe Talbot
Release Date: June 7, 2019
Jimmie longs to live in his childhood home again. It’s a beautiful Victorian currently owned by an old white couple who’ve let the property fall into a state of mild disrepair. Jimmie stops by every now and then to maintain the exterior against their will; this couple might own the house, but they don’t appreciate what it is or what it means. In one of the delightfully oddball moments of the film, a Segway tour group passes by Jimmie’s Victorian. The tour guide, played by Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra (!), goes over the history of the property and its architecture, but Jimmie corrects him. No, this was not built in the 19th century. Jimmie claims the house was really built by Jimmie’s own grandfather at a later date.
When the couple vacates the property for personal reasons, Jimmie and Montgomery squat. It’s better than their living situation at the beginning of the film: the two share a cramped room in a home owned by Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover). Here in Jimmie’s childhood house, there’s a pipe organ dusty from going unplayed, and their voices carry down the halls, and the light pours in warm and soft from a stained glass window. Jimmie’s family life may be in shambles and San Francisco may be unaffordable these days, but here is a chance to stay in the city he loves in a place that feels like home.
The plan is doomed from the start. Reality (and realty) has to eventually encroach on this story, no matter what deeply felt flourishes are dotted throughout. That’s something I kept feeling as The Last Black Man in San Francisco unfolded. The story is a fictionalized version of Fails’ real life, and co-written by Fails and director Joe Talbot, who is a longtime friend. Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography is magnificent, and the same goes for Emile Mosseri’s melancholic score. And yet there’s a question of logistics underlying the aesthetics and the earnestness. How did Jimmie the character think this would end? What did he hope would happen?
Perhaps this is just the desperate attempt to cling to something treasured that’s also a lost cause—a memory, a family, a sense of home, a city, a dream, even a lie. Late in the film Jimmie observes that to really hate something you have to love it first. He’s come to hate the city, or maybe he still loves San Francisco and longs for it even though the city he loves is long gone. Whatever the case, that Victorian home he swears his grandfather built is a repository for all that love during better times. Sometimes the idea of the thing and what it represents is more important than the thing itself.
Beyond the logic of Jimmie’s plan, Mont also gave me pause. In addition to examining gentrification and racial/economic displacement, The Last Black Man in San Francisco also tackles notions of blackness and masculinity. Mont feels like one of those talented slackers in a Wes Anderson film: he wears a blazer, he is a skilled visual artist, he loves old films and classic literature, he is an aspiring playwright. Outside of his grandfather’s house, a couple of guys in the neighborhood mock Mont for his niche interests and for being effeminate. Majors’ performance is great, but the character at times feels like a collection of twee indie movie tropes. While I understand how that kind of twee character is a stark contrast to stereotypical ideas of how black men should act, I also found myself questioning why Mont feels like a bunch of affectations rather than someone wholly realized. To a certain extent the larger issues the film is trying to explore feel a bit fuzzy, like the emotions are delineated but never fully delved into. It may be a consequence of an ambitious debut film trying to say and do too much.
I think I focus on Mont as a character type because by contrast his friendship with Jimmie is so strongly realized. When Mont has Jimmie to play off of, Majors’ performance hints at a bigger, unseen heart beating beneath the familiar trappings of the indie stock character. Even Fails seems enlivened when he has Majors to play off. Mont is the closest thing to family that Jimmie has. His parents have no place for Jimmie in their lives anymore, and maybe never did in the first place. Jimmie has no home, no future, and seems so detached from the world around him. Maybe his desperate cling to the home in spite of reality is his last display of love before checking out completely. But until then, there’s him and Mont. Between these two friends there is such remarkable companionship. They sleep in a cramped room like young siblings, they occupy the same space with the familiarity of brothers.
It’s in the friendship between Jimmie and Mont that the meaning of the film’s title presents itself. There are many shots of Jimmie isolated in the city. He rides his skateboard alone down a hill, he hitches a ride on the back of some bougie juice truck. A beat up car passes by with Jimmie’s uncle in it and we learn that Jimmie used to live in that car. He’s not literally The Last Black Man in San Francisco, but it feels that way. Mont, similarly, feels that isolation. No one is like him, and he isn’t like anyone else he knows, but Jimmie lets him be.
San Francisco is a lost cause, but not the discarded people of San Francisco. There are so many. Where do they go and what do they do? Who knows, but how fortunate they can sometimes find and help each other; the world seems slightly less lonely, and a little more loving, if only for a little while.