For a movie that’s rooted in personal experience, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is strangely vague. For one that’s based on physical labor, it is oddly lacking a sense of texture and effort. For one that’s rooted in observation of a specific place, it’s disorientingly dematerialized. The film is a prime example of the rigid conventions that are endemic to independent filmmaking, or, rather, to the indie-brand cinema that is exemplified by the Sundance Film Festival, where “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” premièred. Despite its banalized substance and plasticized surfaces, the film is well worth seeing for the strong and passionate core that it nonetheless contains—not because of but despite its director’s and screenwriters’ efforts.
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The movie’s main character, Jimmie Fails, is played by an actor of the same name, who also co-wrote the story (but not the script), based on incidents from his own life. Jimmie (the character, distinguished from the real-life Fails) is a young black man in San Francisco who has an obsession—with a house. It’s a grand Victorian house in the Fillmore neighborhood, where Jimmie grew up and which his family was forced to move away from, sometime in the nineteen-nineties. Jimmie works as an attendant in a nursing home and lives with his best friend, Montgomery Allen, a.k.a. Mont (Jonathan Majors), in a small house owned by Mont’s grandfather (Danny Glover), who is blind. Mont, who works behind the counter at a fish market, is a gifted artist and playwright, who conceives one-person stage shows and carries notebooks that he fills with majestic and exquisite drawings of the people and places in his life.
Jimmie’s obsession with the house is rooted in lore: he was raised with the idea that his grandfather built it, with his own hands, in 1946. Now other people—an elderly white couple—live in the house, in a neighborhood that has been thoroughly gentrified. Jimmie acts on his obsession by showing up at the house with paint and tools and doing work on its external surfaces and details to maintain it according to his standards and make it conform to his memories. The new residents try, unsuccessfully, to keep him away. When they, in turn, are forced out of the house (because of a family dispute over an inheritance), Jimmie and Mont force their way in and live there for a little while, only to be forced out again by real-estate interests—but not until Mont puts on one of his shows there. Meanwhile, Jimmie is forced to confront the keystone of his family mythology: the house wasn’t in fact built by his grandfather. It was built in the mid-nineteenth century—and his forebears moved in, in the wake of the Second World War, after the neighborhood’s Japanese residents had been forcibly removed and interned in concentration camps.
There’s a vast amount of personal and social history packed into the film, and its very presence makes the film worthwhile. But the director, Joe Talbot, who wrote the script with Rob Richert, reduces the character of Jimmie to a stack of traits, experiences, and motives that are virtually stuck to the screen like Post-it notes in the course of the action. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a tale of extreme physicality—the meticulous craft that Jimmie devotes to the house, the heavy labor that goes into moving in and moving out. It’s also a story of a deep personal bond between Jimmie and Mont, based on their shared adventures and their ability to support each other through daily difficulties and long-term struggles and frustrations. But Talbot seems to wave these elements away, grotesquely simplifying the story as he shapes it.
In effect, Fails has handed over to Talbot the intricate and fragile treasures of a lifetime, and Talbot has melted them down and reshaped them into something smooth, shiny, and hollow. The movie is filled with dire and earnest substance: the onetime drug addiction of both of Jimmie’s parents, gun violence, homelessness, racism, the politics of real estate. Yet Talbot and Richert manage to reduce these ideas and experiences to baubles—such as one-liners, fleeting glimpses, and planted twists—that merely decorate the film.
For all their constant companionship, the Jimmie and Mont of the film hardly talk to each other. They sleep side by side in Mont’s bedroom, but whatever they know of each other, their past, their plans, their family lives, is turned artificially into flip and facile action, rather than being allowed to exist as observation or conversation. They’ve known each other for a long time; for how long? And how long have they roomed together? It’s never made clear. For that matter, Jimmie and Mont are sexless—without any romance or overt desire, without any spark of intimate connection or interest. Jimmie’s chimerical dream is foregrounded at the expense of psychology, politics, memory, and the intricacies through which a person’s character is formed.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a film that’s oblivious to itself. It’s a hangout film that suppresses the free-flowing verbal current of its protagonists’ deep connection, a city documentary that reduces the city to confectionary postcards, and—worst of all—it transforms its energetic and fiercely present cast of actors into mere signifiers of their own presence. (One scene, featuring Jimmie and Mont with a man—played by Mike Epps—who now has Jimmie’s father’s customized seventies car, has a flash of intimate observation that’s absent from the rest of the film.) Fails, who’s only in his second movie role here, holds the camera with a calm and centered intensity. Majors is reflectively and sensitively persuasive as a bold and insightful artist stuck in frustrating circumstances. Rob Morgan, as Jimmie’s father; Tichina Arnold, as Jimmie’s aunt; and Glover—a national treasure who delivers depths of wisdom and experience in each gesture and inflection—all deliver more than the script and the images offer them.
The movie flings around big numbers (how much the house is selling for—four million dollars) but can’t be bothered with smaller ones (how much Jimmie and Mont earn, what Jimmie pays in rent to Mont’s grandfather); it suggests large-scale exertions, such as the hauling of furniture, but the fine labor of Mont’s theatrical enterprise is dispatched in a few instants. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is, in large measure, about art itself—its title is that of Mont’s climactic play. Yet the movie displays little interest in the complexities or techniques involved in making art. Brief scenes of Mont doing one-man rehearsals are among the best moments in the film, but here, too, Talbot cuts them to mere informational snippets. He displays as little fascination with what his characters are doing as with what they have to say. Rather, Talbot himself is trying very hard to say something, to say many things, and that effort stands like a solid curtain between the viewer and the world that he wants to portray. There is a paradox at the center of this disappointing film: the drama is anchored in the white bourgeoisie’s efforts to transform the city, a process that the filmmakers clearly consider a repellent clean-up. Yet the movie, devoid of the grit or texture of real experience, ends up doing the very same thing.