The Last Black Man in San Francisco: A Bittersweet Love Letter To A City
Childhood friends Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails’ debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, made massive waves at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won awards for Best Directing and a Special Jury Prize for Creative Collaboration. Based in part on Fails’ own life (he co-wrote the script with Talbot, who produced and directed), the film is a poignant and personal love letter to a city that’s up against a considerable amount of change. Ripe with poetic lyricism, it’s as visually appealing as it is emotionally resonate.
Jimmie Fails (played by himself) dreams of reclaiming the Victorian home his grandfather built in the heart of San Francisco. Joined on his quest by his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors), Jimmie searches for belonging in a rapidly changing city that seems to have left them behind.
Fails and Talbot met when they were kids and quickly became inseparable. It wasn’t too long after they were friends that Fails started opening up to Talbot, giving way to a backstory that ultimately became the foundation and framework for this rich and lyrical marvel, which Fails claims is “more than 20 percent autobiographical.” The duo’s creative partnership and Fails’ closeness to the subject matter really give the film an added level of emotional oomph. Fails is so expressive in his performance; he wears Jimmie’s internal struggle all over his demeanor, and Talbot finds just the right angle and composition to expertly frame and heighten the emotion.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is gorgeously lensed and beautifully lit. Its visuals are striking, and its persistent sun-drenched magic hour look gives it a fairytale esque vibe with a tinge of magical realism. Talbot’s directing style is clearly influenced by Terrence Malick — there’s a shot of a house’s spire that is straight out of The Tree of Life and the film’s yellowish-orange color palette brings Days of Heaven to mind — and Barry Jenkins, whose Bay Area film Medicine for Melancholy made a big impact on Talbot and Fails. Like both Malick and Jenkins, Talbot is able to draw a lot of emotion and performance out of his characters and compositions, and he seems to place heavy emphasis on poetic potency when framing his compositions, finding shots that are visually rich but also emotionally symbolic of its characters and their world.
Narratively, the film touches on a lot, but its primary focus is its protagonist’s longing for the past and their reluctance to accept the reality of their situation. It’s essentially a break up film between a man and a city, only explored in a non-sappy, poetic manner. San Francisco is the Place Jimmie calls home, but it’s overrun with gentrification and suffering from a housing collapse (amidst other things), and its no longer the city that inspired or nurtured him. This is the source of the film’s quietly bubbling resentment, which never really raises to the level you expect it to. The film also focuses firmly on the relationship between Jonathan Majors’ Mont and Jimmie Fails’ Jimmie, which radiates authentically on screen and leads to several memorable moments.
I was really into its look, performances, and overall message, but I felt like it took longer than needed to push to its close, teetering on the border of outstaying it’s welcome. For all its emotional current, it never really ever got worked up or riled. I kept wanting it to reach a boiling point, to erupt and tear apart, but it remained quiet, never really hitting any peaks or valleys, only raising to a simmer on a few occasions. Emile Mosseri’s score also didn’t always work for me. There were certain moments where it was on the brink of obnoxious, and its fluttery spasm of playful notes had the tendency to occasionally undercut the film’s impact by making it come across a bit goofy.
Regardless of its flaws, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is still a solid achievement, full of quality moments and resinous imagery, making it well worthy of the buzz. However, overall, it didn’t come together with the kind of impact we were hoping for; it feels more like a rich and evocative poetic plateau than the emotional wallop we wanted. It has a lot of touching things to say, but it fizzles to a close, never really letting loose. Nonetheless, it will be listed in the top slots of several end of the year lists, just not ours. Still, it absolutely cements Talbot and Fails as talents to keep your eye one.
Recommendation: If you love film with lush, evocative imagery that’s poetic nature and emotionally resonate narratives, definitely give this one a day in court.
Rating: 4 heel clicks outta 5.
What did you think? Did The Last Black Man in San Francisco work it’s magic on you? Did you also feel like the film was missing something? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well.