A home is not just a home. Where we’re raised becomes a part of ourselves. For good, for ill and for everything in between, wherever we’re raised tends to become deeply ingrained into the fabric of who we are as people. We can fight it, we can deny it, but the influences of where we’re raised tend to creep in eventually. This part of who we are as people serve as the centerpiece of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a fascinating tale contemplating the relationship between ourselves and the places we call home. For this particular story, the real-life saga of Jimmie Fails (here portrayed by himself in his first ever feature film performance) and his desire for his childhood home is told against the backdrop of San Francisco.
This is a city, full of ups, downs and a toxic body of water, that’s had as much of an influence on who Jimmie is as his troubled childhood upbringing, which saw him spend time in foster care and deal with a toxic father. Now an adult and living with his best friend and aspiring playwright Montgomery Allen (Johnathan Majors), the one thing he’s always clung to his childhood home that was built by his grandfather in the 1940s. It’s a beautiful expansive abode built by a figure known as “the first black man in San Francisco”. In the face of gentrification that’s drastically altering the city he knows and loves, this house serves as an anchor of stability for Jimmie, even if his inability to own the house means all he can ever do with the place is paint the outside window frames. But now that the previous owners have abandoned the place, Jimmie and Montgomery decide to move on in. Finally, Jimmie has a house to call his home.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco captures the city of San Francisco and especially the house Jimmie wants to call his own in such a beautiful fashion. Even a lake affected by toxic activity that’s home to four-eyed-fish is depicted in shots that look like a resplendent painting come to emotionally potent life. Director Joe Talbot and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra, not to mention the costume and production designers, give The Last Black Man in San Francisco such an extraordinary visual sensibility that well and truly feels like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Just a shot of Jimmie lying on the floor as beams of sunlight pour on him through a window is so beautifully rendered that it left me in awe and there’s plenty of stunning imagery there that came from.
Much of the beautiful visuals are enhanced by magnificent camerawork that’s so vibrantly alive, the camera in The Last Black Man in San Francisco is always on the move and always has a purpose to each of its movements. When the camera pushes in on a smokey area where a house was recently set ablaze, for instance, it immerses the viewer so deeply into a sight that proves so chilling for Jimmie Fails that one feels like they’re about to fall into the smokey area itself! The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s immersive camerawork constantly shows beauty as well as creativity, including in how it uses the camera to capture the point-of-view of everything from Jimmie Fails to Montgomery Allen to even just a rock
An atmosphere of intoxicating beauty is further reinforced by Emile Mosseri’s score, which is heavy on wind instruments that evoke a classical musical style that feels like a perfect accompaniment to the similarly classical style of the cinematography. Just through Mosseri’s score, as well as a number of excellently-picked needle drops (not since A Serious Man has a movie used Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love this well!), one totally gets the aching sense of longing for a sense of home in the face of constant change that motivates the lead character of Jimmie Fails. That internal plight of this protagonist is captured so well by the actor of the same name whose actual life inspired the character in the first place.
It’s astonishing to consider that this is Jimmie Fails’ first time acting in a feature film considering just how remarkable he is in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, particularly when it comes to depicting Jimmie as a man who always keeps his emotions restrained. The consequence of adhering to one aggressive vision of masculinity (reinforced by characters like Jimmie’s father) is a key thematic element of The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Jimmie’s lead performance heart-breakingly depicts numerous spots where Jimmie express his emotions in a subdued manner because he just knows no other way of communicating those parts of himself. A scene where he bargains and pleads with a bank employee in regards to the prospect of owning his childhood house never sees Jimmie so much as raising his voice in his performance but all the years of desire his character has to have a house of his own is heard as loud and clear as a bullhorn.
It’s a magnificent performance so emotionally-stirring and serves as the heart of the entire motion picture alongside Johnathan Majors’ similarly impressive turn as Montgomery Allen (God, I love the names of the characters in this movie, they’re so distinctive!) Majors is an utter delight as the eternally loyal best pal of Jimmie Fails, especially in how he lends so many small details to this layered playwright-to-be. Rare is there a scene with Majors where he doesn’t incorporate a small piece of business, like feigning the act of smelling flowers as Jimmie stirs up a confrontation with a neighbor or shading himself while Jimmie tries to get into his childhood home, that doesn’t subtly speak volumes about who Montgomery Allen is as a person. Fails and Majors play vastly different people in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, but both manage to deliver turns that thrive on the smallest details.
Given how so many of the performances (including supporting turns from Danny Glover and Rob Morgan) and parts of the camerawork rely on subtle details, it’s impressive to note that The Last Black Man in San Francisco also excels when it comes time for more overt elements. Instead of coming off as overly show or hitting the viewer over the head, The Last Black Man in San Francisco manages to make its more conspicuous elements, like an opening scene of a roadside preacher talking in voice-over about the state of modern-day San Francisco while Fails and Allen skateboard through the city, just as moving as its most subtle parts. Both contrasting parts of the movie thrive of a sense of emotional authenticity that rings true to life and creates a sense of unity through seemingly disparate elements. Through all of its brilliant details, both subtle and not-so-subtle, The Last Black Man in San Francisco captures its lead characters emotions and perspectives in such a vivid and well-made manner that one is left in nothing less than utter astonishment.