The Last Black Man in San Francisco follows Jimmie Fails and Montgomery ‘Mont’ Allen, two best friends in San Francisco. They are young and black, and live together in a tiny apartment with Allen’s blind, elderly father. They often walk past a house which Fails believes his grandfather built with his bare hands. He is sad about how the owners have neglected it, and often paints and does up the house when they’re not there. When an owner’s mother dies, their family starts fighting over the house, leaving it empty. Fails and Allen have a chance to enter.
The film is semi-autobiographical. The actor who plays Jimmie Fails has the same name and had a similar house with family history attached to it as a child. The film’s director, Joe Talbot, and him grew up together, and constructed the film’s ideas as teenagers.
Their passion for the story is conveyed in an astounding way. The acting by the entire cast is excellent. Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors (Allen) beautifully convey their characters’ creativity and introversion in a world that doesn’t seem to appreciate it. They are emotionally truthful, and don’t lose that mesmeric quality despite the challenges their characters face. Tichina Arnold as Fails’ aunt Wanda provides a contrast-she shows her struggle between trying to be happy about things and knowing she must defend herself and others from deceit. She is reserved and cautious.
Danny Glover as Grandpa Allen and Rob Morgan as Fails’ father both create a sense of danger in the play. They are the only ones whose opinions Fails and Allen’s opinions seem vulnerable in front of. In part, this is because they mean so much to them. Towards the end of the film, a man called Kofi, who argued and fought and was shot dead on the street for ‘talking s***’ was said to have said ‘people aren’t one thing’. Glover and Morgan, as well as Jamal Trulove as Kofi, epitomise this quote.
Everyone else is just as brilliant, including the production team. The musical score is rich and gorgeous, focusing on old tunes and classical orchestra pieces. This is in contrast with the film’s urban setting where the audience and characters are unsure if things are beautiful or not. The shots linger and mix an enticing colour scheme with images of urban decay. The script celebrates the importance of these images, giving just as much time to them as it does to speech. Over time, Fails and Allen’s hold on the house begins to be questioned. It explores the concepts of how history is written, how people come to ‘own’ property, and what is made visible and invisible in a gentrified city such as San Francisco.
The film’s large downfall is that it plods in sections. The main conflict-who has a grip of the house-is firmly established early on. The two hours running time feels a bit long because there is little thematic development, so the film seems a little unrewarding at the end.
However, this film is artistically and intellectually excellent - and I am going to read a book on general history soon, because this film has reminded me there’s a lot of history hidden everywhere.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is in cinemas now.
Reviewed as Film of the Week, in partnership with Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh.