Operatic in tone, a love poem that’s “Howl” raw in scope and despair, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a deadpan elegy to a city, its ever-shifting populace, family lore and the weight of the past.
If Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fail‘s love letter of a film is not great, it at least has the whiff of greatness about it.
It’s about two lifelong friends trapped — by choice — in a San Francisco that’s left them behind, just as it must have left their parents behind.
Fails, who came up with the story, plays a character named Jimmie Fails, a young homeless man not far removed from living in his father’s El Dorado, now rooming with longtime friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and Monty’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover).
Jimmie doesn’t work. He just skateboards, and waits for the folks who live on this ancient pre-Earthquake house in the Fillmore District to leave for the day. That’s when he gets to work — painting, yard work.
“My grandfather built it, with his own two hands back in 1946,” he tells the homeowners, when they inevitably return and start thanking him and yelling at him and pelting him with vegetables. San Francisco manners, you know.
The viewer is allowed to doubt Jimmie’s tale of the house, because unlike Monty’s granddad, we are not blind. We just need to know that Jimmie’s obsession with “keeping the house up” goes back years.
Monty is a sketch artist and writer. He draws what he sees and jots down what he hears, the passing parade of young bloods (a Greek chorus) and loons, nudists and an ex-con street preacher (rapper Willie Hen).
Here they all are, at “the final frontier for Manifest Destiny,” a city whose industrial and shipping past are crumbling, the descendants of those who worked it trapped in an increasingly elitist metropolis that redevelops and gentrifies them out of existence, bringing in Haz-mat -uited clean-up teams to remove the pollution that longtime residents have lived with for decades upon decades.
When the house on 958 Golden Gate is vacated, Jimmie decides here’s his chance. He will take what he’s learned from years on the street, from his vagrant/squatter father (Rob Morgan) and move into the house.
Montgomery, who works in the city’s famous fish market, will join him.
Jimmie introduces himself to the locals, promising to be “the best damn neighbor you ever had.” He makes himself at home, takes his touch-up painting inside and revels in the home’s ancient pipe organ, hide-away library and “witch hat” garret.
“What if we shouldn’t be here?”
“Who should be here more?”
Talbot, who co-wrote the script, peppers the picture with San Fran “types” — hipsters, go-getter realtors (Finn Wittrock), hippy tourism holdouts (Jello Biafra leads Segway-mounted historic district tourists, others pile onto Haight-Ashbury party trolleys).
The street people in the neighborhood once called “The Harlem of the West” include an opera baritone, and later a tenor who knows all the words to “If You’re Going to San Francisco.” The Jefferson Airplane complete the aural picture of the City by the Bay, underscoring other bits of the soundtrack.
The familiar faces here — Glover, former child star Thora Birch and funnyman Mike Epps — have just enough to do to warrant their presence. Epps, playing the guy who “borrowed” the car the Fails used to live in, riffs on Jimmie’s need to reconnect with his father.
“He ain’t at home, but he’s alone. Home, but not alone!”
What Talbot and Fails get across here is a lovely sense of displacement, of staying in a city so long you no longer recognize it, a place that has moved on and left you behind, financially if not psychologically — left you behind even if you’re still there.
That gives “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” a forlorn if occasionally comic feel, with an open-endedness that can be unsatisfying. The music and Greek chorus (who do not advance the plot) give it a “magical realism” edge. That pervades the unreality of it all, the disconnect between lifelong residents and those who ruthlessly, but in the most genteel manner imaginable (San Fran’s manners again), politely and tolerantly squeezing them out.
Fails gets across the mild annoyance of a powerless man, displaced from the culture that reared him, unaccepted at face value as a skateboarding, flannel-wearing homeless guy among hipsters.
Majors, seen in “White Boy Rick,” “Hostiles” and TV’s “When We Rise,” tracks a much broader character arc, submissive to Jimmie’s whims, but an artist and observer who can — when the need arises — channel every character he’s watching in the passing parade.
The narrative has a compactness that Talbot’s filmmaking renders meditative, slow and somnambulant. The slack pacing and contemplative tone reminded me of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and other space-specific stories told by filmmakers who connect with a locale and immerse us in its vibe.
It’s a wonder to behold, a San Francisco Hollywood and The Travel Channel don’t show us, and an odd duck of a movie that will stick with you long after its specifics evaporate from the memory.
MPAA Rating: R for language, brief nudity and drug use
Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan, Mike Epps, with Thora Birch, Finn Wittrock and Jello Biafra
Credits: Directed by Joe Talbot, script by Joe Talbot and Rob Richert (story by Talbot and Jimmie Fails). An A24 release.
Running time: 2:01