Skip to main content

Last Black Man In San Francisco’ Is Cinematic Poetry

Best film of the year so far

Photo credit: A24

Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) cannot let go of the house his grandfather built in San Francisco's Mission District in the 1940s in the film "The Last Black Man in San Francisco."

Companion viewing

"Vertigo" (1958, for another view of San Francisco)

"The Draughtsman's Contract" (1982, for use of score)

"If Beale Street Could Talk" (2018, for cinematography and editing)

"The Last Black Man in San Francisco" won accolades at Sundance earlier this year. Now it opens in select San Diego theaters (Angelika Film Center, AMC La Jolla, AMC Fashion Valley) and you need to see it.

Jimmie (actor and co-writer Jimmie Fails playing an alter ego of himself) can’t let go of the Victorian house (which becomes a character in the film) his grandfather built in San Francisco’s Mission District back in the 1940s. The family got pushed out when it became too expensive for them to stay. But Jimmie keeps returning.

He and his friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) tend to the garden and paint the trim, much to the annoyance of the current white baby boomer owners. But when fate forces the owners out, Jimmie and Mont decide to move in and stake squatters' rights. And for a brief moment, they create the home they both so desperately crave.

The plot is really inconsequential in this film because it is more a cinematic poem or perhaps elegy is more accurate about place, about what we call home, and specifically about the changing face of San Francisco. It is an achingly beautiful film about a changing city and how we define home. It’s also a meditation on the stories we create in order to define our place in the world and our sense of belonging.

First-time director Joe Talbot displays an assurance of style as he meticulously orchestrates gorgeous visuals, a haunting score and deeply felt performances. The film works a kind of alchemy as it holds you rapt from the first frame to last.

Photo credit: A24

Mont (Jonathan Majors) and Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) navigate a changing city in "The Last Black Man in San Francisco."

The film is about race and gentrification but also about friendship, community, artistic expression, and family. It defies description and presents a unique tone in tackling its themes. It is not an accusatory film that looks to place blame but rather a heartfelt and personal exploration of what it means to be displaced and possibly erased.

Star and co-writer Fails, along with director and co-writer Talbot, have created a breathtakingly original film. The two have been friends since childhood and came from multiple generations of San Franciscans. They have long contemplated making a film about their beloved but troubled city. The title is not meant literally but it endows the film with a sense of weight as if it’s carrying the burden of a history about to be lost.

The film has a layered sense of sadness and loss. There is grief, anger, frustration, guilt, longing, desperation, and even a glimmer of hope. It gets to the complicated way these characters interact with a changing environment. The film conveys all this through a style that is both seductively lyrical and yet firmly rooted in the real world. The stunning imagery combined with Emile Mosseri's elegiac score create a heightened sense of reality that perfectly conveys both the city of San Francisco and the point of view of the characters.

Fails and Majors are both wonderfully engaging performers. They convey a friendship in which each tries to support the other and to watch out for each other. Their performances create immediate empathy and compassion for the characters and give the film a heartbreaking beauty and passion. They also suggest a resiliency as they survive all the changes.

At one point Jimmie overhears two young white women complaining about San Francisco and how much they hate it because it's not what they were hoping it would be. Jimmie interrupts their conversation and politely tells them they haven't earned the right to hate the city. He asks if they ever loved the city and asserts, "You don't get to hate it unless you love it."

"The Last Black Man in San Francisco" is my favorite film so far this year. It is deeply personal and yet so universal in the feelings it stirs.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.