Two men share one skateboard as they glide down winding hills in the Bay Area.
It’s a beautiful picture wrapped in early morning light, but what’s most striking is how instantly personal the relationship is.
Joe Talbot’s Sundance award winning film follows these two men across a changing city in a simple tale that evokes much more than it ever says.
A story of friendship and holding onto a place to call home at any cost, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is perfectly imperfect, a singular vision from a soulful first-time feature film director whose technical flaws bring his movie to life.
Written by Talbot and star Jimmy Fails based on Fails’ real life, the film plays silent observer to one man’s relentlessness trying to regain his childhood home built by his grandfather.
Alongside his best friend and introverted playwright Mont, Jimmy wanders in and around San Francisco searching for a sense of family and safety.
Fails never acts as Jimmy; he’s constantly reliving real experiences or fictionalized approximations of true events in a way that almost feels invasive on the part of viewers.
Talbot often lingers on private moments in Jimmy’s life that quietly resonate with audiences thanks to unspoken outpouring of emotion on Jimmy’s face.
It’s incredible to believe that Fails has never appeared in a feature length film before, let alone carried one as he does with “Last Black Man.”
Fails’ heart and soul drip off the canvas of each frame for an intimate, intoxicating performance.
Equally transformative as Mont is Jonathan Majors, who melts into the nuanced role with ease. Constantly writing or sketching in a red notebook, Majors’ Mont is a quiet obsessive brought to life through observation and careful consideration until something profound results.
It’s a performance worthy of supporting actor award nominations alone.
As a pair, Fails and Majors have an easy, familial chemistry that suggests deep-seeded friendship in unspoken terms and bring out the best in each other’s performance. Jimmy and Mont’s co-dependency is beautifully illustrated by the actors as a perfect symbiosis of friendship.
The soul of a dying city resonates throughout “Last Black Man” as the film poetically paints a portrait of gentrification with rich baths of sunlight.
Films often encapsulate a place to the point that the world of the movie becomes a character in its own right.
To a degree, that’s true here of San Francisco with its rolling hills and bay landscapes.
But the third lead of “Last Black Man” is an old Victorian house with a witch’s hat roofline, boldly inviting windows and a gorgeous pipe organ carved into its frame.
Talbot and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra allow the house to feel immensely vast and yet very intimate by placing the camera at the widest angles to give viewers a sense of scope and help contextualize Jimmy’s attachment to an aging building.
The film also boasts an intoxicating score from Emile Mossari that enriches each scene with additional depth and emotion, though it’s a masterful take on “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” sung in the film by Michael Marshall to reflect a tonal change in the third act that solidifies the soundtrack’s essential core.
“Last Black Man” exudes such emotion moment by moment that it often overwhelms the storyline, which becomes less and less important as the minutes tick by until the fitting conclusion.
In this way, the film evokes the work of fellow Bay Area writer/director Barry Jenkins, especially his Oscar-winning film “Moonlight.”
Although “Last Black Man” has little chance of earning the same level of awards season acclaim, it would be no surprise to see the film littered across critics’ best of 2019 lists and a strong contender at the Independent Spirit Awards.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” will go down as one of 2019’s and most underseen films. It’s a striking and haunting piece of cinema that will resonate for a long time with audiences lucky enough to see it in theaters.