Something I have come to realise in my film watching experience is that if a film does well at Sundance, then it tends to do well with my personally as well. Having picked up both Best Director and a Special Jury Award at this year’s festival, it’s fair to say that The Last Black Man In San Francisco was a film that I was very much looking forward to. Could this directorial debut from Joe Talbot really be as striking as the hype suggests?
HOLY hell, yes, yes it could. The Last Black Man In San Francisco is without a doubt one of the best films I have seen in 2019, perhaps one of the best in the last few years even. Set, as you might expect, in San Francisco, the film tells the story of Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails), a young black man who embarks on a mission to reclaim a large Victorian house in the city that he grew up in, and which he believes was built by his late grandfather.
For a film with such a seemingly simple premise, I am absolutely stunned by how moving and rich The Last Black Man In San Francisco is. It has a spectrum of things to say and to depict, from as large scale as the pros and cons of urban gentrification to as small scale as the intricacies of male friendship and the damaging effect of cultural bravado and gender roles. That might sound like a lot, but every single touched upon theme feels as natural and purposeful as the next.
Not only does the film have some really important and poignant things to say, it also looks absolutely beautiful from start to finish. There is a hazy, hypnotic feel to the cinematography that manages to feel nostalgic yet completely fresh at the same time, very much echoing the feelings of an endearing protagonist who, despite being utterly familiar with his city surroundings, also feels increasingly ostracised by them. If you can imagine such a thing as a fusion of If Beale Street Could Talk and Dope, it gets kind of close to what The Last Black Man In San Francisco feels like as a viewing experience. A deliberately paced, beautifully realised picture with a poetic rhythm and cadence, that also possesses a lot of off beat humour and quirkiness. It manages to be a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet feels eminently and organically serious in a deep and meaningful way.
You become attached to central characters and their stories without even realising it. That is, until, you find yourself weeping as events unfold in the final third. I am in absolute awe of the fact that this is a directorial debut from Joe Talbot. I’ve watched films this year by the likes of Pedro Almodovar, Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle; but none have felt quite as accomplished and special as this.
To top it all of, the film is carried by a two really amazing performances. Playing a protagonist of the same name, Jimmie Fails makes his feature leading debut, though you would never think it. Playing a character who is semi autobiographical, Fails is massively endearing, giving one of those sincere, vulnerable performances that you can’t help but fall in love with. Not for one second does it feel like this is an early performance in a young career. Fails is wonderful but I fear his contribution is going to get lost among some of the louder contenders during awards season.
As Jimmie’s eccentric and sensitive theatre loving friend Montgomery, Jonathan Majors is another revelation. I have seen him before in Out Of Blue but he takes his presence and performance to another level here. The dynamic that the two characters share is a delicate and intriguing thing to experience, a tender friendship the likes of which you don’t commonly get to see in male partnerships, especially African-American male partnerships.
For a feature debut, Talbot has managed to hit the jackpot with some of the small supporting roles fulfilled within the narrative. The likes of Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan and Finn Wittrock all help to give depth and texture to the film with some brief but high quality contributions.
Overall, I think you can tell by my review thus far that I absolutely loved The Last Black Man In San Francisco. Pretty much a perfect set of feature debuts for both director and leading actor. Whilst watching you really get the overriding sense that everyone involved from top to bottom felt a deep connection with the material, something that really comes through because there is no better word I can think to describe it other than ‘special’. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s quirky and it’s serious, a perfectly delicate balance of everything you want in a story. You might not have heard much about this one, it seems to have arrived with little fanfare, but trust me on this one, it’s a special, special movie.