"The Last Black Man in San Francisco" (2019)- Movie Review

Written and Directed by Joe Talbot
Co-written by Rob Richert
Starring Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors and Rob Morgan

‘A Powerful Gentrification Drama’

Gentrification is a sensitive topic that is rarely depicted in films. Hollywood has long shied away from stories of gentrified neighborhoods. It is not easy to create an authentic portrait of a homeless community. It’s a formidable task that requires filmmakers to tackle heavy subject matter. Then, there’s the challenge of attracting interested viewers. Due to their harrowing themes, these films do not appeal towards mainstream audiences. After all, most movie-goers do not want to leave the Cinema feeling upset. For these reasons, it is rare to come across realistic portrayals of gentrification on the big-screen.

In this regard, Joe Talbot’s latest film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is like a breath of fresh air. A bold, poignant and deeply moving drama, it offers a powerful portrait of racial gentrification. With his directorial debut, writer/director Joe Talbot has crafted an authentic account of Jimmie Fails’ fight to reclaim his home in San Francisco. Packed with spellbinding cinematography, gripping storytelling and powerful performances, it is a highly effective drama. Although “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It suffers from a meandering pace that tests the viewer’s patience. Nonetheless, it offers heartfelt entertainment that will satisfy fans of art-house Cinema.

Set in modern-day San Francisco, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” traces an African-American’s search for home in a changing city. Jimmie Fails stars in the lead role as Jimmie, a black man that lives in a cramped apartment with his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors). Jimmie yearns to reclaim his childhood house but it is occupied by a wealthy white couple. However, Jimmie’s life forever changes when the couple suddenly leaves the house in his hands. As Jimmie moves into the house with Mont, he becomes exposed to gentrification of his neighborhood.

It’s a heartbreaking tale of displacement that is expertly told by first-time filmmaker Joe Talbot. Talbot is an auteur that is best known for his award-winning short films (ex. 2017’s “American Paradise”). “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”, however, marks his first narrative feature and foray into his hometown. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to dramatize the struggles of black men in San Francisco, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, Talbot draws viewers into the life of a homeless man. From intimate close-ups to spectacular slow-motion shots, the cinematography keeps viewers immersed in the film’s setting. Working alongside cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra, Talbot creates a stunning film in which each frame captures the timeless beauty of the city. Talbot excels at transporting viewers to San Francisco, and his latest feature is worth watching for this reason alone.

If themes of gentrification do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”. The film is extremely well-made, and features the most exquisite production values you’ll ever see in an independent drama. The sets, locations and musical score are all carefully chosen, combining to create an immersive movie-going experience. Talbot proves to be an expert at designing sets for his debut feature. Assisted by production designer Jona Tochet, Talbot creates sumptuous sets that showcase the characters’ affections towards their home. For instance, Jimmie’s childhood house plays a crucial role in the movie. Whether it is the elaborate windows or witch-hat roof, the house’s eye-catching architecture helps viewers understand why it is beloved. Moreover, the musical score is also worth mentioning. Emile Mosseri’s classical score is highly effective. It gives the film a haunting and melancholic atmosphere. Through astonishing production values, Talbot keeps viewers engrossed in the lives of gentrified African-Americans.

Another admirable aspect of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is the screenplay. Joe Talbot’s screenplay is sensational, and arguably the main highlight of the movie. Filled with multidimensional characters, poetic dialogue and timely themes, the script elevates the movie to another level. Talbot’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to use sparse dialogue to convey the friendship between the main characters. In Hollywood, most movies are driven by dialogue and rely on conversations to keep viewers entertained. Without dialogue, movies often risk becoming boring. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”. Talbot deftly uses silence to convey the unspoken feelings and bond between two friends. Minimal dialogue is a risky technique to employ in an indie drama, but it works tremendously in this movie. Using an unconventional screenplay, Talbot keeps viewers absorbed in the friendship between two black men.

It is hard to not praise the powerful performances from the cast. In an exceptional ensemble, every star gets the chance to shine and leave a lasting impression.

Jimmie Fails delivers a star-making performance as himself. In his first ever leading role, Fails proves to be a fantastic actor with a knack for playing disenfranchised men. It is not easy to portray a gentrified black man from the Bay Area. It’s a challenging role that requires the actor to draw on his own personal experiences. However, Fails pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, he conveys the grief, desperation and intense longing of a man that yearns to retrieve his childhood home. While Fails isn’t well-known in the industry, this powerful performance will surely gain him the recognition he deserves.

Jonathan Majors is marvelous in the role of a sensitive artist that strives to be accepted by his community. While Fails gets the showier role, Majors is also remarkable and worthy of awards recognition. As Mont, he showcases aptitude for conveying strong emotions without dialogue. Whether he is amusing his best friend or mourning the loss of his house, Majors skillfully uses his expressions to convey various emotions. It’s a breakthrough performance that proves the actor has a bright future in the industry.

Although “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is undeniably an unforgettable drama, ultimately it is not a flawless film. If there’s a minor drawback to the movie, it suffers from a slow pace. Accompanied by Emile Mosseri’s evocative score, Talbot keeps the film moving at an engaging pace during the first hour. However, once the film enters its climax, it starts to lose steam and test the viewer’s patience. Talbot’s decision to exhibit eccentric aspects of San Franciscan life is bold and ambitious, but it doesn’t entirely work. It hinders the pacing and detracts from the entertainment-value of the movie. Due to its meandering pacing, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is one of those films that may not appeal towards mainstream audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of art-house dramas will definitely enjoy “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and so will movie-goers seeking heartfelt entertainment. A triumphant tribute to San Francisco, it sheds light on timely issues facing the city today. At a time when gentrification remains common in the city, it’s a stirring reminder that the stories of marginalized black men are worth sharing on the big-screen.

4/5 stars

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