The most striking thing about The Last Black Man in San Francisco is made apparent within the opening frames — it’s aesthetically breathtaking. In film, the idea that every shot of a film is a painting is prevalent, but this is a film where you can truly see it.
The colours are bright and bold, with little details scattered throughout every picturesque look at the San Francisco streets. Early in the first act, we see a tableau of San Francisco; the camera breezes through the streets with crowds of people moving so slowly, they’re almost still, introducing the city that the characters both love and hate. Every still frame of this film is a painting, one that could find a home on a wall like the ones in the extravagant house the film is dedicated to.
Visually, The Last Black Man in San Francisco appears to be a love letter to the city, but — especially as the darker second half of the movie takes stride — it’s clear that looks are deceiving. The film is neither one or the other, as per a sentiment towards the end that sums up the story: “you don’t get to hate [San Francisco] unless you love it.”
Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot conceptualized the story of this film based on occurrences in Fails’ life. Talbot directed the film and Fails plays the titular character, also named Jimmie Fails. Jimmie is a young man who spends his days attempting to remodel the classic Victorian house that he grew up in — which, as he proudly and regularly reminds everyone, was built by his grandfather in 1946 — with the help of roommate and best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors).
Jimmie eventually learns that the owners of the house, an older couple who he insists do not know how to take care of it, are in a legal battle over the house. The newfound vacancy means that Jimmie and Mont can slip back in and make themselves at home. It’s here — at this point in the film, as well as back in the house Jimmie believes he belongs in — where the plot truly begins.
In plenty of other contemporary films, lead characters grapple with their attachments to friends or significant others, family members or pets; in comparison, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a breath of fresh air, centering around Jimmie’s attachment to the house. His grandfather’s house is as much of a charming character as Jimmie and Mont are and much like relations between people in other films, it serves to be the site of happiness, heartbreak, pain and growth.
Fails’ authentic, heart-wrenching and relatable performance as Jimmie is what sells this point, making it unimaginable that this is his feature film debut. Fails’ emotions are contagious, carried to the audience with the help of camerawork — it’s steady on him when he feels a sense of pride and shaky in moments when he can’t stand on his own anymore.
Majors as Mont, the more expressive character of the two, is commendable as well. As a duo, Jimmie and Mont are fascinating to observe even when they’re simply sitting and waiting for the bus.
Unfortunately, there is a lot within the plot of this film that has been crammed into two hours. The writers threw a multitude of ideas into the screenplay, leaving some of them half-baked as there was no room for their potential impact to be fully realized, or other aspects of the story simply overshadowed them.
As a result, bits of The Last Black Man in San Francisco feel rather disjointed. It’s a shame, because it’s clear that each of these pieces were put into the film out of their importance to the film’s creators, but the final product does not grant them equal weight.
If there is one thing about The Last Black Man in San Francisco that can be unanimously agreed on, it is that it’s clearly a passion project, showcased throughout the film in the best possible way. Every person involved in the making of this film gave it their all under Talbot’s thoughtful tutelage. This is a film that was in the making for years —- since Fails and Talbot were teenagers — and every second of dedication shines through.