Film Review: ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’

It may seem like we just (incorrectly) awarded Green Book Best Picture at the Oscars, but the 2020 awards season is already heating up. At the Sundance Film Festival in February, Joe Talbot was awarded the US Dramatic Directing Award and Special Jury Award (Creator Collaboration) for his feature directorial debut, The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Official promotional poster for The Last Black Man in San Francisco via A24/Plan B Entertainment.

Written by Talbot and Jimmie Fails, Last Black Man follows the story of Jimmie Fails and his quest to save his grandfather’s house from the grips of gentrification in San Francisco. The screenplay is partially based on Fails’ own life and he plays the main character. Fails gives a nuanced and gentle performance that tackles the overarching love of family in spite of fractures in those individual relationships. Fails’ character is the bridge between two generations that have been almost entirely severed by loss, gentrification, addiction, and more. Fails’ best friend, Montgomery (played by Jonathan Majors), is a quirky and artsy young black man who uses his gifts of theatre and art to accurately tell the stories of black men who are often written off as “gangsters” and “thugs.” Majors gives the best performance of Last Black Man; he is at once inspiring and devastating. Majors plays Montgomery with the faintest hint of innocence that refused to be crushed by various pressures of all shapes and sizes. Kofi, played by Jamal Trulove, is arguably the most interesting character. Without giving too much away, his character is a stern reminder at how easily systems of oppressions can stunt and stifle one’s potential. Behind, Majors, Finn Wittrock is another potential candidate for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this film. Although his screen time is brief, he expertly embodies the smugness and vapid air of relatability that white real estate agents have in relation to their black clients. Last Black Man also features performances by Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, and Mike Epps.

Last Black Man excels because it feels honest. It is incredibly easy for a film about black ownership and gentrification to come off as preachy, but Fails’ and Talbot’s screenplay shrinks those large ideas into a specific narrative. Last Black Man is also a well-made film, the cinematography is strong and the overall art direction created some absolutely beautiful and memorable shots. There’s this gorgeous scene that’s set at dusk, it portrays masculinity and male bravado in away that I’ve never seen before; It’s presented as an art form to be both cherished and reconstructed. Nevertheless, the editing was slightly choppy at some points, which left some unanswered questions concerning the plot. One of the strongest elements of the film, however, was the score. The Last Black Man in San Francisco‘s score, spearheaded by Emile Mosseri, has the slightest touch of whimsy. The sweeping chords evoke a sense of quiet urgency and even notes of magical realism in some scenes. In the film, there’s a performance of a cover of Scott McKenzie’s 1967 single, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” The earnest performance is nostalgic and heartbreaking, it’s a brilliant use of music and that scene elevated the entire film. The Last Black Man In San Francisco is both a swan song to cities and rousing and haunting call to action to protect family legacies and history. Truly, it’s a stunning film.

Score: 9/10

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