The timing for a film like “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is right. Cities like San Francisco across American have been changing, due to mass migration along with the influx of banks and other forms of big money coming in and buying large sums of land and neighborhoods and rebuilding them for more commerce and real estate. The result leads to displacement of citizens who have lived in these communities their whole lives, and even their generations of parents and grandparents lived their before them.
We are told that if you work hard enough, sacrifice enough, you can buy land. With the collusion of government and big banks that led to the housing crash in 2008, where true capitalism is destroyed by corporatism and crony capitalism, and the bigger banks and real estates along with the politicians who write the laws are the big winners.
Director Joe Talbot, co-writing the script with the films lead actors Jimmie Fails and Rob Richert is a love letter to San Francisco and a cautionary tale about gentrification and the struggles it creates for its native citizens and community. The film centers on a house in San Francisco that Jimmie’s grandfather built after World War 2, a beautiful house with a Victorian structure that holds great space and beautiful details. During the 1990’s Jimmie father (Rob Morgan) lost the house. Years later, Jimmie and his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) stop in the vacant house to touch up the exteriors, and eventually they end up breaking into the home, cleaning the interiors, and ultimately moving in and living inside it as it stays vacant.
There also many supporting characters that appear in just a handful of scenes, one centers on Danny Glover as the grandfather, we see a preacher (Willie Hen), a scene of Jimmie’s father Bobby (Rob Morgan) who packages and peddles pirated dvds of big movies, and a man living in his car all conveys the displacement of the cities transformation, and Thora Birch makes a cameo where she is trashing the city of San Francisco where Jimmie tells her she doesn’t have a right to trash it. The biggest set-back of the film is the clunky script, where narrative coherence is taken the back seat to visual poetry, and while the film certainly holds visual splendor with many engaging moments, it feels like it coasts along with hypnotic imagery becomes weary after a while. That is perhaps because at its core there isn’t really much complexity to dissect here, or really much of a narrative that really doesn’t have much at stake when it comes to characterization or dramatic momentum. With it running a full two hours, that is problematic. Had the film been trimmed down to 90 or even 100 mins mark, it would probably play out like a beautiful and elegiac tone poem with its ideas and themes.
The woozy imagery is captured with beautiful cinematography by Adam Newport-Berra, and Talbot stages his scenes with wide lens and symmetry that echoes the aesthetics of Wes Anderson, and Majors and Fails do first-rate work in their performances. The subject matter of the film is indeed involving, however the forced David Gordon Green (earlier work) and Wes Anderson style makes the film feel too forced and at times pretentious.
Despite some of these flaws, there is no denying just how melancholic the film is on the past and on gentrification. I commend Talbot and writers for not making a too heavy-handed of film about the reasons why gentrification occurs from the housing market, and it also doesn’t beat you over the head about racism, but the presence of racism is clearly there, and its mostly from people and cities who believe or claim they are the most tolerant and accepting.
All around “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” holds a lot of poignancy and heartbreak that is all around just very sad. It doesn’t offer simplistic solutions, it just shows how the fruits of ones labor and the hard-work we hold can slip away within us at any given time. There is nothing sadder then not gaining acceptance from your own community and this films captures that with sincerity and poignancy.