Immediately upon seeing or hearing the title of his film, you want to know what it’s all about. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” which won the Best Directing Award and the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Creative Collaboration at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, opens in area theaters June 21.
In a semi-biographical story by Jimmie Fails and his longtime friend Joe Talbot, who directs the film, Fails, an untrained actor, stars as Jimmie, a young man who spent much of his youth in group homes, and now spends his time skateboarding on the streets and hills of his beloved San Francisco. All the while, he is captivated by an ornate Victorian home that his grandfather built in 1946, with his own hands. Once Jimmie’s family home, it stood out among the other houses in the neighborhood, and was equipped with a pipe organ and even a small theater.
As time went by, the family’s fortunes changed, their dysfunction became more evident, and gentrification reared its ugly head, the family lost the house, and everyone went their separate ways. Now homeless, Jimmie was welcomed into the modest home of his best friend, Montgomery “Mont” Allen (Jonathan Majors) and his blind grandfather (played by Danny Glover). In an intriguing scenario, whenever Monty is home, he spends much of his time “watching” classic movies with his grandfather and painstakingly describing every action-packed scene in great detail.
While Mont is there for Jimmie every step of the way, he never gives up on his own dream of producing a play that he spends most of his time writing and discussing.
Comedian Mike Epps plays the free-wheeling, offbeat Bobby, a character that seems to symbolize the confusion and mixed emotions that Jimmie now has for his hometown, which seems to have abandoned him.
Conversely, his Aunt Wanda (Tichina Arnold) who has somehow managed to hold on to much of the family’s belongings and history, as well as the location of a few relatives, is a comforting, stabilizing force in his life.
Over time, the house is both empty and occupied, with Jimmie occasionally having verbal exchanges with the current owners. However, during one period when the house is unoccupied, Jimmie and Monty break in and actually begin moving the family furniture back in. Now classified as squatters, the realtor tells them if they don’t get out, he will call the police. It is here that Jimmie begins to learn some unpleasant truths about his city, his family, and even himself.
Even so, Jimmie proves over again that he is willing to do anything to reclaim his legacy, and there are several surprising moments in the film.
The strength of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is the unique and captivating story by Fails and Talbot, combined with the raw, realistic performances by the two young actors. Director Talbot gives this quiet but captivating film a haunting, surreal quality, juxtaposed against the beauty of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Paradoxically, there is a grungy homeless man living on the street singing the aria “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca” in perfect Italian.
A testimony to the power of friendship, particularly when it seems that all hope is lost, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is an intriguing look at family, gentrification, life in the city and human decency. (Rated: R)