The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

In The Last Black Man in San Francisco, writer/director Joe Talbot takes a true story and turns it into a poetic and haunting version of itself – a brightly lit, lyrical, stylised drama.

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by Alexa Dalby

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Joe Talbot’s real-life childhood friend Jimmie Fails – not a professional actor – plays an engaging version of himself as the central character in his own story – or rather, the story of his family’s house. It’s a beautiful, ornate, many-roomed home on a hilly street in a prime location looking out over the bay to the Golden Gate. 

He lived in it as a child, until his father lost it, and he believes it was built by his grandfather. Now there is a middle-aged white couple living in it, and, to their great annoyance, he stubbornly continues to treat the house as if it’s still his. For him, it’s like a living thing that they are not looking after well, so he obsessively tends to it by touching up its paintwork when he thinks they are out.

Jimmie Fails skateboards everywhere, but when he walks through the hilly streets, it’s with his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors, Out of Blue), a fringe playwright, who is quietly observing San Francisco and turning what he sees into art. They live with Montgomery’s blind grandfather (a cameo by Danny Glover). The two young men together have no money yet are both a part of the life that is happening all around them and wry commentators on it.

The memory of San Francisco’s role as the hippie Mecca of the Sixties lingers like patchouli and there are tracks by Joni Mitchell and Grace Slick to underline that. Its architecture is also iconic. Both those layers of its history are formalised now by organised tours. But underlying them are the contemporary issues of gang violence and the gentrification of areas such as that of Jimmie Falls’ house. 

The film’s narrative uses the fate of this lovely, historic home to represent a nation. Who built America, was it the labour of black men such as Jimmie Fails’ grandfather or not? Who is killing America and who is nurturing its spirit? And what about the capitalist forces selling off its history, like estate agents selling property, and in doing so changing it out of all recognition?

This unusual and intriguing film takes Jimmie Fails’ story to make us re-assess the truth of what we think. Is what we believe really true or is it a story we tell ourselves because that is what we need to believe? It’s a disorientating, thought-provoking story of love and loss.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won awards for Best Directing and a Special Jury Prize for Creative Collaboration. It screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 25 October 2019 in the UK.

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