Calling “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” a love letter to the city would oversimplify the ambivalent relationship that director Joe Talbot and star Jimmie Fails, best friends since early adolescence, have with their rapidly transforming hometown.
Their mutual feature debut, which had its world premiere on Saturday afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival, seeks to dissect the nostalgia and frustrations about a place that no longer feels entirely like home.
First, a street preacher (along with Emile Mosseri’s stirring score) announces the arrival of a whimsical rhapsody where all the magic radiates from the central friendship. On screen, Fails portrays a fictionalized version of himself, in which his most loyal comrade is not Talbot but another black man, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors).
Striking compositions (courtesy of prolific DP Adam Newport-Berra, “Barry”) highlight the emblematic architecture of San Francisco. The delicate quality of the lighting choices and hues — in production design and costumes — that dominate the film add an evocative timelessness to the entire affair. Yet these are not picture-postcard views; the urban images here will be more familiar to locals than to tourists or transplants.
For these homegrown residents witnessing the voracity of gentrification and being on the losing end of it, the possibility of displacement is not farfetched, not unlike characters in another Bay Area buddy comedy, “Blindspotting.” Regardless, Jimmie, who has been living in Mont’s tiny bedroom for an extended stay, dreams of repossessing the Victorian house his family once lived in, one he insists was built by his grandfather in 1946. Subsequently, when the owner is suddenly uprooted, he and Mont move in illegally.
Aside from exploring the housing crisis benefiting developers and startups, “Last Black Man” hones in on male friendship from the standpoint of two young guys whose fraternal bond surpasses any need for the posturing associated with toxic masculinity. These dudes love each other wholeheartedly and in all their vulnerability. When they embrace, there is no fear of a hug lasting too long, or of tears flowing.
That sincere affection comes through thanks to Majors’ and Fails’ involved performances. To balance out the more affecting notes of their work, they also bring a childlike playfulness that suffuses their interactions when luck intervenes in their favor. Intrigued by the behavior of other black men their age who hang out near the appropriated property, Mont, a sensitive artist and writer, tries to reach out to them and indirectly comments on their aggressive banter that’s more performance than inherent vice. Those fashionably dressed macho men inevitably crumble at the news of a tragic death.
Fragility remains taboo for men particularly around other men, but Talbot’s movie warns about the destructive consequences of labels that restrict people from being fully themselves. “People aren’t one thing,” Jimmie exclaims in a tense exchange with Mont during an improvised stage play.
The pair’s future ambitions beyond their immediate conundrum are never discussed at length, and neither is their past. Mont is unlikely to leave the home where his blind grandfather (Danny Glover) lives, while Jimmie can’t conceive of an existence outside of San Francisco.
Nevertheless, the daunting realization that the house he cherishes may be out of reach could be an ultimatum to life as he knows it. That internal confrontation about his identity without the city is what fuels his pursuit for something to appease his need for feeling grounded. If San Francisco is no longer what it used to be, can Jimmie be who he’s always been?