The Last Black Man in San Francisco has a glow that verges on magical realism. The story of one man’s struggle to find a place where he belongs, literally and metaphorically, is warm and clarion, but to call it fantasy would be a disservice to the very real story that it tells and its bittersweet look at the past, present, and future of San Francisco. Based on the life of its star, Jimmie Fails, who plays a fictionalized version of himself under the direction of his childhood friend Joe Talbot, The Last Black Man in San Francisco may occasionally burst into flights of fancy, but it’s wonderfully, tangibly real as can be.
Jimmie’s love affair with San Francisco is shaped by how gentrification has made it inhospitable for anyone but the rich (and mostly white). The part-time hospice nurse is obsessed with his family house, a beautiful, Victorian-style building purportedly built by his grandfather, the so-called first black man in San Francisco, and lost by his self-destructive father (Rob Morgan). Though it’s been over a decade since he called the property home, he still returns to the grounds to take care of all the odds and ends — maintaining the paint, tending to the greenery — that its current owners neglect. A chance occurrence, however, sees the owners driven out and the house empty, leaving it free for Jimmie and his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) to sneak in.
In a slight subversion of expectations, the question that follows is not if but when. Jimmie and Montgomery’s tenure in the house is destined to be cut short, and they know it. But they make the most of that borrowed time, with the film blossoming as they take up residence. They restore Jimmie’s grandfather’s original furniture, which had been kept in storage ever since the family had to give up the house, and restore the old pipe organ built into the house’s walls. They dance and scream with abandon in a space that — however briefly, however much the shifting landscape may want to push them out — is theirs.
That sense of belonging is precious, not least because the world outside the house’s walls seems to have no place for them. Neither Jimmie nor Monty (who wears a slightly-too-big blazer and keeps a pencil tucked behind his ear, working on sketches and plays in turn) fit into stereotypical conceptions of black masculinity, nor do they have any other friends. Their friendship is so close — they go everywhere together, and Jimmie sleeps on the floor next to Monty’s bed — that the guys who hang out on their street corner regularly harass them about it, but they’re not to be judged so quickly, either.
As shot by cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra, Jimmie and Monty’s world is filled with rich reds, oranges, and yellows; that dreaminess only subsides as the two men travel into areas that have been severely gentrified — Jimmie, who usually skateboards, hitches a ride on a truck advertising açaí bowls, and the further he goes, the more the colors seem to desaturate — or have otherwise lost sight of love. The apartment Jimmie’s father lives in, for instance, is a palette of blues, cold in a way that the rest of the film is not.
The difference in colors is a sharp, purposeful contrast in a film that radiates tenderness from every frame. In the first scene, Jimmie and Monty share a single skateboard after missing the bus, push off in perfect tandem, and weave in slow-motion around the people they pass along the way. From there, The Last Black Man in San Francisco has the air of a love story: between a man and a city; between best friends; between a mythologized past and a rapidly changing future.
There’s juxtaposition everywhere, including the spacious Victorian, which bears the weight of Jimmie’s rose-tinted, wishful perception of the past, and Monty’s cramped little house. Tiny though Monty’s home is, it overflows with love, as they spend each night watching black and white noir films with Monty’s near-blind grandfather (Danny Glover), with the would-be playwright carefully describing each scene as it unfolds.
The liminal spaces in which Jimmie and Monty exist are only made navigable by the support they have from each other. The two friends serve as perfect foils for each other, with Fails’ more stoic performance (remarkable, particularly given that it’s his first significant role, and almost his first role entirely) balanced against Majors’ openly empathetic one. They build and bounce off of each other as naturally as Emile Mosseri’s score, which begins with the sounding of a foghorn and grows from there, horns and percussion melding into sunbeams of sound.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is beautiful. It’s full of life, and it’s full of San Francisco, to a cameo by musician Mike Marshall (of “I Got 5 On It,” singing “San Francisco,” no less) and a terrific performance from Jamal Trulove (a San Francisco actor who made headlines after winning a $13.1 million settlement for having been framed for murder by the police), to the acknowledgment that the circumstances that made Jimmie’s grandfather’s success possible also involved disruption, in this case of the city’s Japanese population being committed to internment camps.
In any other film, Talbot’s fondness for symmetry and slow-motion might feel mannered, but the film’s cadence earns every single visual flourish. No part of Talbot and Fails’ film isn’t completely earnest or made out of love, even if the film’s ultimate subject, San Francisco, doesn’t love them back.