“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” Reviewed: Reframing the Cinematic Superhero
“People are more than just one thing.”
When a displaced and grieving man by the name of Jimmie Fails admits this simple truth, it feels like a moment of genuine epiphany that, sadly, will never seep into his city’s collective consciousness. In that moment, Fails is, in a way, set free because he is no longer defining himself by a single story or a single purpose. But at the same time, he knows that his own community — and, indeed, his own city — will continue to mislabel him, isolate him and impose their same restricting definitions on him.
This is the story of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (A24), a warm, hilarious and often heartbreaking tale of friendship and family, home and house, love and hate.
Partly based on the lead actor’s own life, the movie follows Jimmie Fails (played, incredibly, by Fails in his feature film debut) as he attempts to reclaim his childhood home in a recently gentrified neighborhood of San Francisco. Alongside his best friend and aspiring playwright Mont (Jonathan Majors, another magnetic newcomer), Fails traverses racism, toxic masculinity and a range of oddball moments to make this grand, Victorian-style house into a home once again.
Helmed by first-time director Joe Talbot, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” looks and feels like no other film this year — or, really, any other year. From the opening frame, there is an overwhelming sense of artistic urgency, of a desire to tell a story that was so close to never being told at all.
The camera feels entirely untethered, as Talbot innovates with eye-catching cinematic flourishes that never feel showy and always feel driven by plot and character. From slow frame rates that capture the simple majesty of falling leaves to overexposed film that paints a halo effect around a certain character, every scene makes full use of the camera’s ability to reflect its characters’ innermost subjectivity.
Adding to the film’s richly textured world is an original score composed by Emile Mosseri, an early contender for best score of 2019. Mosseri blends melancholic strings and triumphant horns with a haunting piano theme (not to mention an eclectic soundtrack ranging from Joni Mitchell to Bay Area hip hop to Jefferson Airplane). As a result, Mosseri’s genre-bending score serves as a perfect backdrop to the unorthodox story that unfolds on screen.
Speaking of story, the script feels similarly unencumbered, either by studio expectations or Hollywood storytelling conventions. Talbot and co-screenwriter Rob Richert freely move from a traditionally paced three-act structure to more episodic segments of isolated incidents that add color, flavor and texture to the unique makeup of the titular city. The result is a screenplay that possesses urgency, as well as patience, allowing its characters to fully take shape within moments of genuine hilarity and genuine heartbreak.
And yet, in the midst of the film’s many memorable characters and situations, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” never loses its focus on Fails and his city. It’s a testament to the filmmakers’ passion that Fails’ story resonates so strongly and so universally. But then again, it’s not necessarily surprising that audiences can so easily empathize with Fails.
Clad in the same red sweater, black skull cap and Adidas sneakers in nearly every scene, Fails is costumed, paradoxically, to be both the embodiment and antithesis of the cinematic superhero. His clothing makes him instantly recognizable to others, but that recognition usually leads to mockery instead of admiration (one supporting character cruelly refers to Fails as a “human cigarette,” which proves to be an ironically apt name due to the burning passion that drives Fails throughout the film).
Like a superhero, Fails fights for what he believes in without fail (despite his name). Unlike most traditionally defined heroes, however, Fails displays a range of weaknesses, desires, fears, hopes and doubts that extend well beyond a piece of kryptonite.
In other words, Fails is vulnerable. But he’s also driven by those same vulnerabilities to rise above the bigotry that has defaced the cultural complexion of his community. In this way, Fails (or is it Mont?) may very well be the last black man in San Francisco (the title of the film, while ambiguous, is not ironic).
Like a “Superman” or a “Batman,” Fails knows he’s the last of a dying breed. And it’s that knowledge that propels him to reclaim his home by any means necessary — until he doesn’t.
After all, people are more than just one thing.
— Clinton Olsasky
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is currently playing at the Fleur Cinema & Cafe.