The Last Black Man in San Francisco review: a bloated portrait of a city in flux

An aspiring playwright stakes his claim to a house in a neighbourhood buffeted by immigration, deportation and gentrification in Joe Talbot’s overwrought directorial debut.

Jimmie Fails as Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Jimmie Fails as Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Credit: Adam Newport-Berra

The most moving homecoming that I know of in American pictures occurs in Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952), as Robert Mitchum’s Jeff McCloud returns to the farm where he spent his boyhood, now run to rot, though his adolescent cubby-hole hiding space still holds a rodeo bill, cap pistol and other relics of a long-lost childhood. The cultural context of the scene is specifically white and rural, though changes in the 21st-century cityscape – as white flight reverses, and the moneyed, professional classes reoccupy the urban cores that their parents and grandparents fled – make the possibility of an urban black answer to this melancholy moment especially plangent. Someday, I’m convinced, someone will make that movie. The Last Black Man in San Francisco, however, ain’t it.

Pride of property, and the sense of faded grandeur that settles in when that pride is taken away, are at the centre of debut director Joe Talbot’s film. The story is based on the life experience of Talbot’s co-writer Jimmie Fails, who stars as a character named Jimmie Fails.

Jimmie is introduced crashing with aspiring playwright friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) at the home of Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover), and the two are regularly roasted by a congregation of tough-guy street-corner knuckleheads, for whom these serious young men with their artistic orientations are immediately suspect. The jibes are unfounded. If there is nothing resembling a heterosexual romance in the film, there is likewise little on which to hang a homoerotic subtext – in fact, Jimmie and Mont come off as two twentysomethings singularly uninterested in sex, at times almost ethereally cerebral.

Jimmie’s creative outlet is the Victorian-style house in the Fillmore District that once belonged to his grandfather, a leading black San Franciscan, but which has long since passed into other hands. When the house is suddenly left vacant, Jimmie moves back in, occupying what looks like a Millionaire’s Row residence of the 19th century but which Jimmie insists was built from the ground up by his Southern-born grandfather in 1946. Granddad, the story goes, didn’t want to take over one of the homes in the neighbourhood lost by Japanese-Americans on their way to the internment camps.

This premise offers a great deal to chew on – the idea of the city and the neighbourhood as entities in flux due to various migrant and immigrant waves, the complicated relationships between black and Japanese-American families, houses whose status markers refer to a specifically Euro-American ideal of culture. But while Talbot and Fails avoid turning their homespun homesick story into an unwieldy and self-important metaphor for Black American Experience in total, creeping bloat makes itself felt elsewhere, The Last Black Man in San Francisco being stylistically overwrought from an early skateboarding overture that seeks to crescendo the viewer into submission. The belaboured cinematography conveys a desire to overwhelm but little in the way of subjective-impressionist or objective-documentary interest, leaving our protagonists well lit but curiously ill defined. Jimmie’s final appearance rowing out into San Francisco Bay reads as an escape, yes – but that of an exasperated writer looking for an out, not a flesh-and-blood man with no direction home.


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