Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Five

#5 — The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, 2019)

At the beginning of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the main characters are waiting. Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Mont (Jonathan Majors) are sitting at the side of the road, waiting for transport that never arrives and watching the messiness of the city in which they exist. They are abandoned by the systems of their community, but they are not lost. They have the ability to strike out on their own, sharing a skateboard to get to their destination as light shines down upon them.

Conceived by Fails and his childhood friend Joe Talbot, and based on Fails’s own familial experiences in the Golden City, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a remarkable portrait of a common American experience, where legacy is simultaneously a comfort and a burden, or, more precisely, a lie agreed upon that can easily become a wounding corruption. In the film, Jimmie is obsessed with a home he lost. A lavish house in one of San Francisco’s posh, historic districts looms large for Jimmie. He grew up in the handsome abode and still shares proud stories of his grandfather building the structure from the foundation up. The family lost it years earlier, victims of insidious, creeping gentrification that made keeping the house a financially untenable proposition. Jimmie and Mont look after the house on the sly, and eventually find their way inside its walls again, the friendship tested and strengthened and tested again in the process.

Talbot crafts the film with astonishing sensitivity, capturing the souls of the characters — and the soul of the city in which the film is set — as if by sorcery. Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra helps to shape images of jarring, exquisite beauty, but that is only one component of an attentive, alive cinematic inventiveness that surges through the film. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is about a great many things, the shaping of personal identity, the evolution of community, and the sprightly impulsiveness of creativity among them. It never settles for mere essay, though. Talbot, Fails, and their gifted collaborators make a film with an astounding depth of feeling, exposing the vulnerabilities of the character with piercing honesty and celebrating those some characters’ strengths with gleaming admiration. Led by an intricate and engrossing performance by Majors, demonstrating how art can be a vital expression for a person who moves on a parallel track to most of society, The Last Black Man in San Francisco delves into the personal as a means to exploding wide the universal.

Structures can be built on untruths, so Talbot’s film argues. At the same time, those same structures can provide some level of assurance, a safety zone in the ongoing, treacherous process of staking out a place in an uncertain world. The Last Black Man in San Francisco presents itself wholeheartedly, eager to find some surety in the chaos, a way of presenting a complicated, contradictory life experience so that it will make sense to anyone willing to pull up a chair and watch the show.

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