This drama has been hailed by critics as one of the best films of 2019, and even appeared on former US President Barack Obama’s list of his favourite films of the year. The Last Black Man in San Francisco has struck a chord with audiences and captured viewers’ imaginations with its striking visuals and the inspiring behind-the-scenes story of how the film got made.
Jimmie Fails, who also receives a ‘story by’ credit, stars as a fictionalised version of himself. Jimmie works at a nursing home and lives in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighbourhood of San Francisco with his best friend Montgomery “Mont” Allen (Jonathan Majors) and Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover). Jimmie grew up in a Victorian house in Fillmore that was built by his grandfather, said to be “the first black man in San Francisco”, in the 1940s. The house is currently owned by an elderly white couple. When they suddenly move out, Jimmie seizes the chance to reclaim the house, even if according to the law, he is not the house’s rightful owner.
Fails, who has never acted in a feature film before, describes the movie as a “love story between a man and a house”. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a deeply personal film – Fails and the movie’s writer-director Joe Talbot, his childhood friend, had been discussing making this movie since they were teenagers. This is also a very polished film, boasting downright gorgeous painterly cinematography by Adam Newport-Berra and a rich, moving musical score by Emile Mosseri. Talbot has made quite the splash with this directorial debut, winning the Best Directing and Special Jury Award – Creator Collaboration prizes at Sundance Film Festival in 2019.
Writer-actor Jimmie Fails (L) and writer-director Joe Talbot (R)
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is not particularly plot-heavy and some might consider it slow, but the film pulls the viewer in with its specific portrayal of San Francisco, at once dreamlike and very real. The city has appeared in all manner of movies from Dirty Harry to Ant-Man, but here, it takes on a quality that has never quite been captured in any earlier film. The film addresses the gentrification of San Francisco and the subsequent displacement of its black residents. The film simmers with frustration, but it is frustration that is cloaked in beauty. Those who are not familiar with the city and the specific experiences of those who live in it might not immediately connect to the story, but the film has a way of wrapping itself around the viewer. Where The Last Black Man in San Francisco does feel like a debut film is its occasional lack of focus, which might try the patience of some viewers.
The film also comments on black masculinity and the societal expectations that are placed on black men regarding how they should present themselves. Both Jimmie and Mont are sensitive and artistic – Mont draws, writes plays and acts. This means they are mocked by some of their other friends, including Kofi (Jamal Trulove), who calls them “feminine”. The emotional core of the film is the deep bond between Jimmie and Mont, with Majors delivering a warm, layered performance. While Fails is one of the driving forces behind the film, the more experienced Majors gets to do some heavy lifting – the scene in which Mont performs a monologue he wrote is explosive and effectively uncomfortable.
Beyond what the movie has to say and how it’s presented, there’s also something captivating about the journey Talbot and Fails took to realising their dream. The duo reached out to Barry Jenkins, who made his debut feature Medicine for Melancholy in San Francisco and who would go on to make the Oscar-winning Moonlight, for advice. They then filmed a preview trailer and launched a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter that garnered industry attention. They went on to make two short films, one of which caught the attention of Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment. Danny Glover, who hails from San Francisco, was moved by the script and personally called Talbot to express his interest in joining the film.
Getting any movie made is no mean feat - The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an indie success story and deserves to be one. To go from Kickstarter to a movie distributed by A24, the company behind such films as Ex Machina, Room, Moonlight and The Farewell, is any aspiring filmmaker’s dream. Talbot, Fails and the entire cast and crew pour their heart and soul into the project that began as a shared dream between two friends. Heartache and beauty are woven into the fabric of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a film that establishes Talbot and Fails as talents to watch.