Out of all the films I’ve screened so far this year, Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” made the biggest impact. It brought the wow factor. At times, I felt like I was watching a mesmerizing play as the characters, dialogue, and plot complemented each other forming a visual poem with a Victorian home at its center.
Some will compare the film to Spike Lee’s work, but Joe Talbot’s debut feature brought back memories of Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” which had the same effect on me last year.
Before I get to the film’s synopsis, I should point out that “Last Black Man” is a labor of love between director Joe Talbot and the film’s star Jimmie Fails. The two childhood friends grew up in San Francisco skateboarding and discussing Fails’ obsession for the beautiful grand home in the Fillmore District built by his grandfather.
Fails pointed out that his family lived in the Victorian home until his grandfather passed away, and they could no longer afford the payments. So yes, the film is semi-autobiographical but it’s also an ode to the City by the Bay.
In one scene, Fails is riding the bus when he notices two white women discussing their disdain for the city. Fails busts into the conversation with the line “You don’t get to hate San Francisco,” leaving the two women bewildered. He then explains “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” What a great observation. It should pertain to everything in life. Hate is a form of passion, so if you really “hate” something you probably once admired it. Knowledge dropped.
The film opens with a terrific shot of a little black schoolgirl skipping down a sidewalk in the impoverished Hunter’s Point neighborhood, located next to a former nuclear test site and abandoned Naval shipyard. She doesn’t seem to have a care in the world.
As the camera pulls back the scene reveals men in hazmat suits looking like they just stepped out of a Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and yellow crime scene tape warning people to stay out of the area by the bay. Cut to a man in a suit preaching from atop a milk crate about the dangers of San Francisco’s toxic water as the men in hazmat suits wonder in and out of the frame.
Across the street, Fails (playing himself) and his best friend Montgomery “Mont” Allen (Jonathan Majors) assess the situation while listening intently to the milk crate preacher man. This is followed by a beautiful montage of the two friends riding a skateboard together through the streets of the city they love.
At the center of the story, a $4 million Victorian home in the Fillmore district. Before we’re hit with the backstory, Fails is seen on a ladder painting the trim of the glorious dwelling while Montgomery does a lousy job of playing lookout. Suddenly Jimmie is being pelted with groceries by the homeowner, an older white lady, who warns him to stop painting her house or she’s calling the cops.
Her husband looks embarrassed by the whole situation and nervously states that they won’t call the police while his wife continues to pelt Jimmie with items from their grocery bags. Jimmie warns her that he’ll be back to finish painting another day and he reminds her to water the garden. We later find out the reason behind Jimmie’s obsession with the home.
A family squabble after the death of a relative leaves the beautiful home vacant but off the market. Jimmie wastes no time moving into the abandoned home, basically squatting, and filling it up with his family’s furniture stored at the home of his aunt, played by Tichina Arnold sporting a Thrasher T-shirt. Just as the film serves as an ode to San Francisco it also pays tribute to those wood pushers shredding the streets.
The history of the Victorian and Jimmie’s affiliation to the residence is explained in a playful scene that features Jello Biafra, lead singer of the San Fran punk band Dead Kennedys in a cameo as a Segway tour guide, explains to his group how the home was built by a noted architect in the mid-19th century.
Jimmie, perched atop a terrace, argues with the tour guide by pointing out that the home was built by his grandfather in 1946. The audience is also treated to a little Day-Day as comedian Mike Epps appears in the film as a man who drives a ’70s car that used to belong to Jimmie’s father.
Also, look for a cameo by singer-songwriter Mike Marshall, who gained legions of new fans when his vocals on Luniz’ “I Got 5 On It” tore up the soundtrack of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” I’ve always been a fan of Marshall as the lead singer of Timex Social Club whose 1986 hit “Rumors” was an integral part of my DJ career. It was my secret weapon to fill up the dance floor.
In “Last Black Man” he has a cameo as a street singer who delivers a beautiful rendition of Scott McKenzie’s 1967 hit “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” written by John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas.
Another longtime SF resident and activist Danny Glover appears in the film as Mont’s blind grandfather. I loved the memorable scenes with Glover and Majors as the two sit on a couch watching old movies with Mont serving as his grandfather’s eyes, describing what is happening on screen as Fails sits on the floor with a smile on his face, cherishing the moment the three men share together.
In many ways, the city of San Francisco is the real star of this film. Fails shares a story from his childhood and Talbot along with screenwriter Rob Richert turn it into a celluloid love song that becomes a tale of heartbreak and hope as the film captures the gentrification of the beautiful city.
Jimmie and Mont don’t just wander the streets in a surreal haze aided by Emile Mosseri’s score, which goes from ethereal notes to grand vocals. The duo is seen holding down real jobs. Jimmie works as a caregiver while Mont works at a small fish market. A scene where a four-eyed fish jumps out of the toxic bay and into a boat left me craving other forms of protein.
Although not always cohesive, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a movie for and about dreamers. Jimmie dreams about spending the rest of his life in the grand Victorian built by his grandfather, while Mont aspires to be an artist and playwright.
One of the film’s best scenes involves a one-man play staged by Mont that becomes an intervention aimed at his best friend. The film also explores Jimmie’s dysfunctional relationship with his father, played by a very good Rob Morgan.
In a summer filled with blockbusters, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” may get lost in the shuffle.
In a recent trip to the 25-screen multiplex, I tried to purchase a ticket to see the film again. When I said, “One for ‘Last Black Man in San Francisco’ the young lady at the ticket window looked perplexed and asked, “One for ‘Men in Black?’” I said. “No. ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco.’” She scrolled through her computer until she finally found the film.
Once awards season rolls around, the film will find new life on streaming platforms and home video. Meanwhile, see it in a theater for full impact and Adam Newport-Berra’s wonderful cinematography.
Maybe hit an arthouse theater not showing “Men in Black: International” to avoid any confusion at the box office.