“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” should be required viewing material for those in search of context for the generational effects of systemic racism, drugs, poverty gentrification and toxic masculinity within the black community.
With his acclaimed directorial debut, Joe Talbot gives a breathtaking bird’s eye view of the challenges of navigating in a world where the deck has been stacked against you and anyone who looks like you and how the burden shapes your experience – and the willful optimism to move beyond obstacles, a less resilient group of people would deem insurmountable.
Woven together with stunning cinematography by Adam Newport-Berra, Talbot works with the film’s star Jimmie Fails to tell the semi-autobiographical story. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” presents the full scope of humanity of individuals often reduced to collateral damage of urban decay.
The family home – a source of pride, and wealth – became a casualty of Fails’ father’s battle with drugs. When they lost the home, the entire family fell apart. The San Francisco home that had been the defining asset of their family since World War II was now in the hands of strangers who don’t have the capacity to give the home the care and nurturing it deserves.
Though he hadn’t lived in the home since childhood, Jimmie still feels a sense of ownership – regardless of the name on the deed.
Jimmie sleeps on the floor of his best friend Montgomery’s room – a converted garage with barely any space to spare. Despite the confines of their room – and the neighborhood that has all the pitfalls that create statistics, Jimmie and Mont see a world bigger than their surroundings. Jimmie is motivated by bringing the home in a now gentrified section of San Francisco, back to the Fails family. Mont – an aspiring playwright and visual artist – uses his surroundings to inform his art. They refuse to reside within the box of expectations imposed on young black boys in blighted communities. And Jimmie feels like he has the opportunity to reclaim his family’s prized possession, he moves full speed ahead.
Jimmie Fails is effective and authentic in the eponymous role. He lives the whole experience just as the portions that inspire the story. Though the role is a relatively small one, Danny Glover is endearing presence as Mont’s grandfather – who opens his home and his heart to Jimmie while encouraging both boys through love, kindness and acceptance.
Jonathan Majors in the role of Mont is as stunning as Newport-Berra’s cinematography. The young actor embraces the character with the grace, depth and artistic intention that deserves recognition during awards season. Mont has the task of absorbing and then conveying the full breadth of his co-stars all the while presenting as a young man who frames his existence by the art that inspires him as opposed to the surroundings that have the capacity to suffocate his creativity. He creates his own art with everything and everyone that he observes and is determined to offer a creative response that is honest, affecting and respectful. It is a mission that Majors himself fulfills when he embodies Mont.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” opens in St. Louis on Thursday, June 20. The film is rated R with a running time of 120 minutes.