The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

Rated: R
Running Time: 2 hours
Director: Joe Talbot
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“If you’re going to San Francisco/be sure to wear flowers in your hair” the song goes. The reality is, if you’re going to San Francisco make sure you can pay the rent. But not everybody can pay the rent. Especially in San Francisco, a city where the market value is as topless as its hippies. Topless hippies, glaring hipsters and bandwagon Warriors fans currently make up the population; and it’s up to a couple young black men to make The City their home. You might as well make yourself at home–this is as inviting, hypnotic and deliriously beautiful as anything released in 2019. 

Joe Talbot’s feature debut, which premiered at Sundance to rave reviews, is a whirligig vision of a city in flux. It’s a lyrical look at the city’s movements, the way its people ebb and flow with the economical winds. The first time we see the human protagonists–San Francisco being the ultimate protagonist–they’re gliding on a single skateboard with the wind at their back. Jimmy (Jimmie Fails) is riding on the front of the board. His friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) is riding on the back. They zip by the old Victorian homes, the immigrant shopkeepers, the whites who look on in disbelief, as if they had never seen a black man before. They also whiz by a preacher. “This is OUR home!” he shouts in his best Stephen A. Smith impersonation. He’s preaching without an audience. 

It’s a fitting set up for a story about characters who want to be heard, but never are. One can only pray that Talbot’s own sermon can find an audience. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. There’s something in it for everybody. At once a love letter to The Bay and a loveless depiction of despair at bay; this tale of gentrification has the feeling of a fish being released back out to sea. Who knew that watching racial relocation could be so freeing? 

What makes it so freeing is the friendship at the center. Jimmie and Montgomery are outcasts in their own home. Two middle aged men who have a romantic relationship, not with each other, but with their city. Just one problem. They’re broke. And no relationship has ever worked without money. 

The only currency these two are concerned with, though, is time. Time seems to be running out but they aren’t in a hurry. Fittingly, this movie moves at a tourists pace. Often using surreal slow motion to Wong Kar-wai effect. San Francisco hasn’t been this dreamy since Hitchcock’s “Birds.” Soaring images of downtown and the countryside are shot with crimson hues, the sun piercing through the clouds in full golden hour effect. 

Still, we spend the most time at a Victorian estate in the Fillmore District. A district filled with elderly whites thanks to urban renewal. We are told Jimmie’s family built it. It’s also where Jimmie grew up. Now he occasionally visits it with Montgomery (by occasionally I mean every day). Where they, to the owners dismay, paint the walls, take out the trash and rejuvenate the garden. 

The whole film deals with rejuvenation. It’s about how a friendship with man and city can transcend broken hearts and broken homes. Those dealing with gentrification in real life might write this off as inaccurately optimistic. But it isn’t. The events told here are based off Talbot and Fails’ real life experiences slumming it in San Francisco. And it’s that understanding of the environment that makes this something special. It’s not a postcard of the Golden Gate Bridge, rather, it’s a bridge between rich and poor, modern and dated, love and hate. In a crucial scene Jimmie explains “You can’t hate San Francisco unless you love it.” Talbot’s poetic and plot-less debut is easy to love and hard to hate. Scott McKenzie would approve. 

San Diego ,
Asher Luberto is a film critic based in sunny San Diego. His work has appeared on the websites Film Inquiry, FOX, NBC, Screen Anarchy, We Got This Covered, Punch Drunk Movies, and The Entertainer. He also is a firm believer that Andrei Tarkovsky is the greatest director of all time. And as of now, no one can convince him otherwise.