Movie Review: Gentle, Sweet, Thoughtful—'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'
Lovely, lyrical and endlessly watchable, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is one of the year's best.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a wonderfully quirky drama with fascinating characters and a story that meanders in a way that is incredibly charming in its own way. The story goes that Jimmie Fails, played by Jimmie Fails, is obsessed with his childhood home in a now gentrified part of San Francisco. Though Jimmie was only in the home when he was very young, he recalls vivid memories of living there and the comfort he found there.
Jimmie’s obsession is odd, not creepy. For instance, though the home is now occupied by a middle-aged white couple, Jimmie likes to drop by and make repairs to the house while lamenting the state that others have left it in. This state of affairs is not welcomed by the occupants, especially the wife who has no compunction about throwing groceries at Jimmie as he stands on an elevated platform, touching up paint on a window. She wants him to stop and he refuses.
For now, Jimmie is sleeping on the floor of the bedroom of his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors), a dreamer and playwright. Mont bubbles with creativity and finds inspiration in nearly everything he does. One of the main sources of inspiration for Mont are a group of young black men who stand on the street corner near where Mont lives and argue about everything to the point of violence.
These men are violent toward each other and the world around them. Just passing these men on the street is an invitation to an argument or a potentially violent confrontation, and yet, they are mostly harmless. We see them scuffle with each other a little, but the following day, the five men are right back on the corner and back into their strange, angry banter. Among the group is Kofi (Jamal Trulove) who ends up being brought out of the group into Jimmie and Mont’s friendly sphere.
That relationship doesn’t last however and soon Kofi is back on the corner and back to antagonizing Jimmie with whom he has a past connection. Kofi has a large part to play in the way the movie ends, but I will leave you to discover that. He’s not central to the actions on screen, but his presence looms over the film in an unexpected and fascinating way. Unexpected and fascinating is a great way to describe the whole of The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
I have read more than one review of The Last Black Man in San Francisco that has boiled the movie down to a man’s love story with a house. That’s pretty good. Flippant, but still pretty good. Indeed, that is what this movie boils down to. Jimmie begins the movie in thrall with this place from his past that could be similar to a former lover. In the second act, when the white couple is forced out of the home through no action of Jimmie, he returns and squats in the home along with Mont.
And, in the final act, there is a big secret revealed and Jimmie’s relationship to the house is deeply affected by this secret, not unlike a classic third act break up in a romantic comedy. Will Jimmie be able to reconcile with his beloved home is a legitimate question. There is even a secondary read on the movie, a homo-erotic one that leads you to wonder if Jimmie and Mont may have a romantic relationship and the house is the third part of a love triangle.
That homo-erotic angle is purely my reading, and the reading of several other hot take critics, but I feel it is a relatively fair read. There is an intensity and intimacy in the relationship between Jimmie and Mont that could be read as closeted romantic. Then again, they could just be really close friends who feel no need to be defensive about caring about each other and showing affection to each other.
That romantic story also plays into an ending that is difficult to reconcile in many other ways. I won’t go into spoilers because I want you to see this wonderful movie, but once you do, I would love to read theories about the ending of this movie. I’m certain there are many ways to read the ending, but I favor this furtive and stalled romantic notion as it lends an even more gracefully sad note to this wonderfully melancholy yet not not oppressive movie.
This wonderful film works on many different levels with its offbeat story finding unique layers to these characters and wonderful beats to play. My favorite scene, and the centerpiece of the final act is a play written and entirely performed by Mont. Jonathan Majors is a prodigious talent who can thunder with intensity and break hearts with quiet, serene, calm and remain consistently eye-catching.
The male bond at the center of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is said to be based on the real life friendship between Jimmie Fails and director Joe Talbot. This likely contributes to the lived in, warm and comfortable dynamic that makes The Last Black Man in San Francisco such a consistent charmer. Jimmy and Mont sharing Jimmie’s skateboard while riding the streets of San Francisco is the film’s thesis statement on the unique closeness of these wonderful characters.
Secrets, lies, recriminations, and screaming arguments are present throughout The Last Black Man in San Francisco, but they are merely aspects of life and not definitive. Every life has a little drama to it from time to time. The best of life is lived in the peaceful warmth of a place that feels like home even when it isn’t really your home. That is the heart of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Drama, in the colloquial sense of the word, invades these lives onscreen, but it doesn’t last in the way that the love between these characters does.