If you haven't yet seen "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," then you're denying yourself the opportunity to see one of the year's best movies. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
Some movies tell evocative stories. Others pull you into the lives of intriguing characters. Still others create fantasy worlds that can feel more real than reality itself. And then you’ll find films that do all this at once. Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is that latter-most kind of film.
Conjured by first-time-feature filmmaker Talbot and his longtime friend Jimmie Fails – written by Talbot and screenwriter Rob Richert – “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is both a study of frustrated hopes and a love letter to the city that San Francisco was before it became a haven for the 1 percent.
The frustration involves the film’s title character – played by Fails as a version of his real self, also called Jimmie Fails – who lives with his friend Mont (played by Jonathan Majors) and Mont’s Grandfather Allen (played by Danny Glover).
Grandfather Allen’s house sits in a downtrodden section of the city, on the Bay near a former military installation where – we are told – radioactive waste has polluted the water. Not only told, though: The movie opens with a young black girl watching as workers in hazmat suits attempt to clean up the area while a street preacher excoriates them in bible speech worthy of seven Billy Grahams.
Yet Jimmie’s heart is elsewhere. While we see him occasionally working as a geriatric care specialist, his vocation of choice is as caretaker of a house in a more upscale neighborhood. He dotes on the place, painting window trim and bemoaning the overgrown garden, to the chagrin – and irritation – of its current white owners.
I say current because, as Jimmie tells anyone who will listen, the house used to be his family home. His grandfather built it, he explains, not in the 1850s but in 1946, after taking over an empty plot of land from a Japanese family that had been interned during World War II.
Jimmie may be correct, or he may be spinning a fantasy he desperately wants to believe. Talbot ultimately reveals the truth, though what that truth actually is may be the least of his film’s many qualities.
Winner of a directing award at Sundance, Talbot affects a style that has much in common with what Barry Jenkins realized with his 2017 Best Picture Oscar winner “Moonlight.” And not just in his stunning use of cinematography but in the mood he achieves.
Whether Jimmie is skateboarding up and over San Francisco’s hilly streets, confronting the toughs who hang out in front of Grandfather Allen’s house (and who act as a kind of Greek chorus) or merely staring at the house he craves, he does so in a manner that feels mournfully meditative.
Much of the mourning revolves around race and the profound sense of dispossession that many Bay Area residents must feel over their changing hometown. Yet “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is no mere ode to sadness. It is, in the end, a powerful tribute to emotional growth and self-awareness.
It is also, without a doubt, one of 2019’s very best films.