Piercing study of race, urban gentrification, and male friendship; heady meditation on nostalgia and memory; love letter to a singular city: It’s hard to exactly define The Last Black Man in San Francisco, but it’s impossible not to fall under its spell.
Audiences at Sundance — where it took home both Best Director and a Special Jury Prize — certainly swooned, though the movie may need a different kind of elevator pitch to translate its special alchemy from the hothouse of festival hype to a summer cineplex already crowded with X-Men and Secret Pets.
Maybe it’s enough to say that it’s a romance between a man, his hometown, and a house? And then to add that the man, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) is smart and funny and sad and complicated, the hometown is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and the house is the kind of layer-cake Victorian you usually only get to see in bohemian fairytales, or behind the high gates of some Silicon Valley tech mogul’s third estate.
That house is where the nominally employed Jimmie seems to put nearly all his restless energy, bringing his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) by to touch up the trim or make sure the eaves are in good shape. He loves it, he reveals, because his grandfather built it, though the middle-aged white couple who actually live there would really just like him to get off their lawn.
When a legal conflict leaves the place vacant, Jimmie and Montgomery seize their chance; “squatter” seems like the wrong word for how lovingly they care for it, but it’s also probably not a technical term that municipal housing laws are likely to see a lot of nuance in.
Their covert takeover is a central part of Last Black Man’s story, but it hardly comes close to conveying the richness of first-time feature director (and fifth-generation San Franciscan) Joe Talbot’s vision. His city is a place spilling over with character and color, from the swooping hills Jimmie bombs on his skateboard to the wayward crew that assembles every day on their chosen street corner like a sort of urban Greek chorus.
There are friends and family (including Danny Glover and Tichina Arnold), and non-friendlys too (like Finn Wittrock’s unctuous real estate agent), all shot so gorgeously by cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra that nearly every frame could be paused, printed, and hung on a wall. But it’s not a movie for admiring in freeze frame; it’s the kind you fall into with your whole heart and emerge from feeling, for two hours at least, what it is to fully be transported by the magic of film.