Film Review: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a funny, moving, thought-provoking, and outstanding debut. 

San Francisco native Jimmie is struggling in an ever-changing city. He is determined to get back to his family home, in a city where locals are out priced and marginalised…

Directed and co-written by Joe Talbot (with Jimmie Fails – based on his own life story – and Rob Richert) The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an embarrassment of riches. The film boasts a wonderful script, strong direction, great performances, and thematic density. The narrative works on a number of levels. Peel back each layer and Talbot and co have something further to say. 

The narrative focuses on Jimmie and his desire to get his family home back; a sometimes quirky, and often moving journey. Protagonists Jimmie and Montgomery are incredibly well drawn, as are supporting characters. Their friendship feels real; the film exudes a sense of authenticity throughout. Their camaraderie is a joy to watch, but is not without genuine moments of sadness and reflection. Both Jimmie and Montgomery are three-dimensional characters, who make viewers laugh, reflect, and perhaps cry. 

The most prominent theme of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is the effect of gentrification on communities and individuals. The film pulls no punches in depicting the effects of this. Those living in cities and regions that have fallen prey to gentrification will certainly be able to identify with the film. However, the picture operates on multiple levels. Talbot tells a story of the search for belonging, the pull of nostalgia, the nature of family, and the reality of inequality, particularly in terms of race and class. It is testament to Talbot’s skill that he is able to ruminate on all these areas in a nuanced and engaging fashion. 

One of the most noticeable aspects of the film is its adherence to authenticity. The characters, both major and background, seem completely genuine. Be they the odd character on the bus or the homeless man with the operatic voice, it feels as if we are seeing a local’s view of the city. Talbot shows San Francisco’s beauty and its detractions. The dialogue certainly adds to the sense of realism.

Performances are strong all round. Jonathan Majors is excellent; his delivery is strong and shows quite a range. Jimmie Fails is also great. The supporting cast are also a plus including Danny Glover and Tichina Arnold. 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is often witty, at times emotional, sometimes challenging, and always charming. A magnificent debut and One of the year’s best films. 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

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