Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors in "The Last Black Man in San Francisco"

Sundance ’19 Review: Passion Carries Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

“I want to drink my coffee and scratch my ass while reading the paper,” Jimmie Fails (playing a version of himself) can be heard saying of his vision of having a home of his own in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” which to the ears of his friend Monty (Jonathan Majors) seems like an impossible dream. Jimmie’s been staying with Monty for a while, to the point that Monty’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover) has taken notice and reminds his son that Jimmy’s “not exactly family,” but the young man has already figured out a way to return the favor, finding a home on Golden Gate and Fillmore sitting vacant as its prior resident and her sister are involved in a dispute over ownership, having belonged to their mother, and with the place empty as so many others in the city are with costs that make it prohibitive for anyone but those flush with tech money to afford. This isn’t just any home, as the pipe organ inside would suggest, but in fact the only one Jimmie could ever consider his, said to be built by his grandfather in the 1940s after returning home from the war, putting in the balustrades and fish scale paneling with his bare hands.

Jimmie will tell this to anyone who will listen, though few do and it is the power of first-time feature director Joe Talbot’s clarion call to cut through the noise of constant redevelopment in the city and bring down the walls of racial prejudice to get people to hear what Jimmy’s saying. In his breathtaking feature debut, Talbot can make one feel the influence of multiple generations bearing down upon the present moment as if he chopped down a centuries-old oak to look at the rings inside all in one place. Almost immediately you’re swept up by Emile Mosseri’s majestic score arriving in waves, true to a place where a city built on hills is so close to the sea, but like Jimmy’s dream, it seems to exist only in the ether and you’re quickly brought back to earth in seeing him skateboard down streets where there’s an emptiness that’s been left after most who made a home there for years have been pushed out to the fringes because of rising cost of living.

Because of everything Talbot and co-writer Rob Richert want to get their arms around, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” takes some time to coalesce, tackling as many ideas about gentrification, urban sprawl and self-selecting segregation as neighborhoods as it visits in the Bay Area, but with Fails and Majors as its soulful anchors, you have something to hold onto and trust it’ll all add up. Once it does, you see the city in all its contradictions as they do and the film’s graceful nods to how civic responsibility has been breached in the families broken apart by “urban improvement” and the people whose ideas about themselves and others have been hardened, particularly Kofi (Jamal Truelove), who grew up with Jimmie in a group home and now can barely recognize him and vice versa though they share the same struggle, carry extraordinary weight.

Talbot brilliantly employs remixed and reimagined versions of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” to illustrate how reinvention can harmoniously extend legacy, honoring it while moving towards something new, which makes the discord that the city’s rocky evolution and rewiring of its values has clearly inflicted on so many in such insidious ways feel all the more unnecessary. Told with great care, tenderness and eye-popping originality, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” puts a face on the people that have been left behind by supposed progress and while painting a dire picture, offers hope in how actively it serves as an example of all that’s lost when a culture’s bottom line strictly becomes commerce and systematically excludes those offering a different perspective. Talbot’s vision of the city is distinct to be sure, but passionate and inclusive to the point that it’ll hit home no matter where you live.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” will be released later this year by A24.