A skateboard, two best friends, a subtle, sweeping score, the San Francisco landscape, and a street preacher’s voice … That’s all Joe Talbot needed to capture perhaps the year’s most breathtaking sequence.
In those three minutes, we see everything we need to know to understand the context and the change of which the old streets of San Francisco have seen. To a more brilliant degree, we feel how out-of-place our leading men are without them uttering a single word. Among its cascading beauty, the opening threshold is a storyteller leaning into the chosen medium–he’s showing, not telling. We enter into a world that feels lived-in and honest while bursting with beauty.
Declaring the film hopeful feels both like an apt classification and a slight disservice. Make no mistake, Talbot doesn’t leave you with a lasting sigh of relief or contented grin. But rather a marveling of the unbridled hope fueling our two leading men, Jimmie and Montgomery (or ‘Mont). A contagious hope promising they’ll always have a place in their beloved city no matter how forgotten they really are. To journey through a film that captures a snapshot of reality in such tender, stunning fashion you can’t help but savor the way of which the story is served. So much to a point that we readily embrace the humanization Talbot unveils; because through the lens of racial gentrification he’s not settling for merely putting a face on the issue … he’s reminding us the issue is inherently human, with history, with family, with hope, and with a story. No better way to capture it than through an earnest character-study.
Simply put, this one is perhaps the most heartbreakingly beautiful and important title since Moonlight.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is two things:
- A ballad of friendship to the deepest degree.
- A parable of manifest destiny; a city changed; and the alienated floating in the aftermath.
Jimmie, our leading man, is a third-generation San Franciscan. A skateboarding, deep-feeling twenty-something enamored with nostalgia. His life isn’t harrowing, but it’s certainly a far cry from what he considered the finest season his life ever saw. Before his family fell upon financial hardship, Jimmie lived in a beautiful old-style home in the heart of SF. The kind of home you’d see on a postcard or featured in a movie. He always believed his grandfather built that house with his bare hands. The devotion he carries for the memories of when life was better run deep. Even years later Jimmie stops by the house from time to time to fix a bad panel; or paint a peeling shutter despite the white folks currently residing. Because whether he lives there or not—it’s his home.
Montgomery’s our other leading man (an astonishing Jonathan Majors). Jimmie and ‘Mont have been friends since grade school (per the staggering monologue on the soundtrack). ‘Mont, also a third-generation San Franciscan, cares for his blind grandpa in a small house where Jimmie also stays. Space is limited, but connection is thick. Through his vintage but lived-in suits, red notebook, and quiet demeanor we get the sense that ‘Monts a noticer and slow to speak. Interesting paradigm for an aspiring playwright.
Eventually, the two friends venture back to Jimmie’s old home as unashamed, lavish squatters. Unable to buy the house outright for the outrageous asking price, they settle-in anyway establishing a beautiful, but out of sorts utopia. A season, however brief, of living freely and relishing in the simple universal truth of which we all adhere: Everyone deserves a place to call theirs, to call home. It doesn’t take long for to get a sense that this ideal situation is anything but, and has no chance to last. Perhaps that’s what made it beautiful—the fleeting nature of it all and daring to embark upon it anyway.
The desire to belong hangs so thick it becomes a subtle clash of nostalgic “this is how it should be” notions and the unfair reminder of reality. For every inspirational (almost fantasy-like) moment on the skateboard or fun conversation in the house there’s a moment of utter dismay. And the balance unfolds beautifully, mostly due to Talbot’s impeccable direction and Major’s award-worthy, load-carrying performance. Chiefly, underneath it all, it posits the difficult questions.
“Where are you from?” In the world of TLBMISF—a world that even at its most fantastical is every bit real—attempting to answer that question is the heart of the conflict. A sentiment many of us take for granted far too often; an ownership of which Jimmie and ‘Mont never waver. But in the thick of white-fueled, high-class, hipster gentrification proudly owning your heritage is not enough. Indeed, as third-generation San Franciscans, though Jimmie and ‘Mont never left—the place they call home no longer exists. At least, not to the newly settled dwellers and deciders.
And that’s what makes this particular film so devastating; from the commanding, but heart-felt leading performances; to the stunning (and what’s sure to be award-winning) score; to the tender beauty of which the camera captures the aged, urban beauty of San Fran; to the humanity of struggling to share your voice; to the on-going struggle of needless police brutality; to the power of true friendship; to the sensitive truth of imperfect family; to the simple joys of a red notebook, skateboard and buffalo check coat—every fiber, every frame of Talbot’s intimate opus is captured with a level of honest love the likes of which mainstream American cinema dare not conjure … yet, we know from the beginning how it ends. With the lifers on the outside looking-in asking the unfair question: What happened to my home?
In that same stirring opening sequence, the nameless street preacher—our urban Greek chorus—declares:
“But we built these ships, dug these canals in the San Francisco they never knew existed. And now, they come to build something new?! Whole blocks, half in the past half in the future. But should you venture into their San Francisco? The one they pillaged from gold? Remember your truth in the city of facades.”
The heartbreak arrives when Jimmie and ‘Mont’s brief utopia ends and the discovery is made—their truth no longer rests in the place they claim. They’ve been uprooted by circumstance, by white privilege, by loss, by the day-to-day of trying to hang onto what was once theirs. What they do have, despite what their next respective chapters hold, is a bond; a rare connection that changes lives and survives through it all. And that is a glimmer of hope worth relishing, even if it is a last vestige.
On the surface it’d be tempting, but a gross misread, to say this story is everyone’s story. When a film this hopeful hits us right in the feelings it’s a convenient reaction to make it about us in a grand sweeping way. “I too have yearned for a place to call my own…” But that’s not where this film leaves it. While the bonds of deep friendship are the heartbeat of the narrative we cannot ignore the fact that it all hinges on two black men; their neighborhoods being overrun with wealthier white transplants no matter how well intentioned they may be. In that light, this film speaks a unique message of introspection to its audience but not one that is universal.
For those watching that look like me a—middle-class white guy—I may marvel at beautiful display of friendship all I want. Talbot clearly wants that. But, for those that look like me, we’d miss the boat if we weren’t compelled to assess the realities of our own privilege and how we benefit. What makes this one fascinating we’re pushed into this space happily for the picture is so damn beautiful and incredibly earnest we gladly follow the path that’s been narratively laid out for us.
I saw this film at an art-house cinema in the lone “big city” within 50 miles of the rural Midwest vastness of which I reside. There couldn’t have been more than 17 folks in the screening room; I was certainly the only one under the age of 50; all of us white. At the third act, in the middle of ‘Mont’s play, the emotional climax of it all, an elderly woman’s phone rang out. After fumbling around for what felt like an eternity, she answered the call, right there, in her seat, for all of us to hear. Honestly, a more frustratingly perfect metaphor for this movie may not exist.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is worthy of placement among the year’s best. Garnering a Best Picture nomination would celebratory in the name of heartfelt, truthful storytelling; a salute to the little film that could. Yet, even among the growing critical praise, this one feels like a film destined to float just under the surface. Fiercely beloved by those who found it; evangelized through the niche-threads of #FilmTwitter; but still carrying the label of “best film you probably haven’t seen”.
One thing is certain, swimming in the ocean it cultivates is profound and uniquely suited for repeated viewings. Because there are films that inspire; films that challenge; films that paint pictures; films that speak truth. There are stories that matter; stories that speak of unwavering connection; stories that eloquently express the complexity of being. The Last Black in San Francisco is all of these.