James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.
James C. Clay // Film Critic
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
The idea of holding onto an object, place, or purpose for so long it becomes you is beautiful and quite possibly toxic. The act of letting go can be a painful process that we may never get over. It is the loss of a loved one or the passage of time. This internal strife is why nostalgia can be such a powerful emotion. For Jimmy Fails and Joe Talbot, the writer/director (respectively) behind one of the year’s best films THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO the love for your hometown can be blinding. Often funny, and philosophical this film takes a timeless approach to contemporary issues like gentrification, the changing of culture, and the friendships that last for a lifetime. While Talbot’s film, which was written by friend/collaborator Jimmie Fails, is deeply rooted in the Bay Area it is a story that’s universal to anybody who has had trouble leaving the past in the rearview.
So often you will hear film critics, or writers say “Oh, this was a love letter to New York City,” or something cheesy like “Los Angeles really was a character in the film,” as for THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO this cliche’ is real and it’s what breathes life into this poetic story. Jimmy Fails (Fails) is a relaxed, and contemplative guy who appears to be in his early 30s and it’s not that he lacks motivation he is the type of human who stops to breathe life in and pay attention to the details.
He lives with his (more) eccentric friend Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors who should be a contender for an Academy Award this year), with Monty’s blind Grandfather (Danny Glover) in an old house in San Francisco. They share a room, share a skateboard, and spend their days doing upkeep on Jimmy’s grandfather’s historic home which is now being occupied by wealthy Caucasians.
Jimmy bases his entire identity on this historic home, which he claims his grandfather built in the 1940s right after WW2. It’s his temple, a place he wants to keep alive because it means the city he grew up in will stay the same, but things are changing and not for the better. The water is contaminated, people of color and being pushed out of their homes, and the loss of this home means the loss of everything he holds dear, besides his relationship with Monty who is one strange individual. They take a self-aggrandizing journey that’s epic in their minds, yet so small as far as the big picture is concerned. However, Fails’ writing and Talbot’s direction puts every piece of love in those details to give the story gravitas.
While this is fundamentally Jimmy’s story, Monty plays a massive part in the trajectory of the narrative. He’s been writing a play based off one of the shit talking dudes named Kofi (Jamal Truelove) who hangs out on the block next to their house. He’s a perfect sidekick who guides Jimmy on their path as they get the chance to start squatting in Jimmy’s old family home. They use the dynamic of these men to discuss the performative nature of masculinity and the many forms of masculinity that are toxic and healthy.
The film is inspired by a poetic style that always has humor sprinkled in its script that relies on emotions that we hide deep to carry Jimmy’s story to its heartbreaking, yet liberating conclusion. Along the way, Talbot adopts many different inspirations from Spike Lee’s double dolly shots, to Wes Anderson’s symmetry, to Barry Jenkins’ signature close-ups. Talbot’s film feels like a unique aesthetic that’s a hip, vibrant, and retro feel all rolled into one meditative package.
The film does not rely on a plot to get us to our destination; it’s a film based in character as it takes us around a city quickly losing its former identity to make way for a new, less recognizable one. What once was a place rooted in 1960s counterculture and was a hub for the LGBTQ population to thrive has now become a bougie city where you are more than likely to find a 6 figure earning computer programmer than an activist. The film never aims to satirize or mock the startup culture that has overrun the city. The film takes a more melancholy approach to a forgotten time, anchored by Fails’ relaxed and assured delivery that often has him monologuing about the past.
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO is an impressive debut from Talbot and Fails that oozes with love and emotion. Commenting on the world today by looking at the past is an illuminating experience for any filmgoer that is soundtracked by Emily Mosseri and Michael Marshall’s classical score. Films with a voice as powerful as this are tricky to articulate, but if there’s one thing we can all relate to: West Coasters, or not, killing the past is one of the more painful things we all have to do.