Excellent title: The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Director Joe Talbot’s rewarding debut feature — he co-wrote it with actor Jimmie Fails and writer Bob Richert — is filled to overflowing with relevant talking points, especially for residents of the Bay. As has been trumpeted all over the world, SF and environs have lately become some sort of shining citadel of money and power, with a cost of living to match. And of course, Black people have tended to be the last ones invited to the party — this is America, after all.
A useful general rule for reviewers approaching a social-problem drama with a much-publicized local angle is to step lightly. Newsworthiness is not a destination but a means to an end. The important thing is whether there’s a story worth telling. What if the dilemma runs deeper than words can express? Talbot and company might have chosen to make The Last Black Man in San Francisco a sardonic comedy. Instead, it’s one of the saddest movies of this or any other year, and yet one of the kindest.
Jimmie (Fails) works at a San Francisco fish market and shares a tiny living space — more like a closet — with his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), a medical caregiver, at the home of Mont’s blind father (Danny Glover) in the city’s Bayview neighborhood. Their Topic A is the same as ours: how can ordinary people manage to keep living in a place that seems to be methodically squeezing them out?
On his skateboard travels across town, Jimmie is fond of stopping to admire a certain stately Victorian house in the Western Addition. According to him, the house was built by his grandfather but the family lost it. Now, Jimmie can’t help keeping an eye on the place, his family’s onetime prize, even when it means he sometimes climbs up and paints the window panes on somebody else’s house. When the place suddenly becomes vacant, Jimmie convinces Mont to move in with him as righteous squatters, reclaiming the Black family heritage in a gentrifying location.
We worry about Jimmie and Mont. Large, beautifully constructed Victorian houses don’t just get abandoned like that in SF. Surely someone has made plans — in fact, a twit real estate agent named Newsom (one of several local in-jokes in the film) is already sniffing around the place. And we wonder about the two friends as well. Are they in the early stages of a gay relationship? Or just childhood pals with nothing else especially going on in their lives?
Filmmaker Talbot frames this quiet, introspective character study — essentially a two-man play — in the most sympathetic of wrappers. San Francisco sight gags fly by in the fog: workers in hazmat suits picking up trash in the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard; an encounter with a naked senior citizen at a bus stop; a party bus full of drunken business bros hooting at the naked man; a homemade preacher (Willie Hen) testifying in the street, etc. These city snapshots aren’t as bitter as we would expect. In common with the two protagonists, they come across as expressions of amused bewilderment amid the overall mournful tone. Meanwhile, Mont continues drawing in his sketchbook and writing a new play, and Jimmie checks in with his relatives.
Talbot, son of journalist David Talbot (whose book Season of the Witch is an essential San Francisco history) and grandson of Hollywood screen actor Lyle Talbot, populates the two men’s housing quest with a richly expressive cast of personalities. Jimmie’s sullen father (Rob Morgan) makes pirate DVDs for a living, and Jimmie’s mother (Tichina Arnold) has such an incidental role in his life that when they bump into each other on the bus they don’t have a lot to say. Neighborhood tough guy Kofi (Jamal Trulove) can’t make up his mind whether to sneer or congratulate Jimmie and Mont when he visits the squat. Mont’s evenings are usually spent with old movies on TV, explaining them to his blind dad. There’s no female love interest anywhere in sight.
In an especially tender scene, Mont carefully, lovingly reassures an elderly dementia patient (Mari Kearney) that he does indeed know her, while changing her clothes as she lies in bed. It’s that level of forgiving togetherness that distinguishes this poetic film. Its job is not to solve this or that problem, but rather to reassure us we’re not alone.