Runtime: 121 minutes
Director: Joe Talbot
Writers: Joe Talbot, Jimmie Fails
Stars: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover
By Michael Frank
Many films in 2019 dealt with semi-autobiographical tales. Ageing directors wrote and/or directed stories which mirrored their lives. They looked at aspects of their own collective past and current present, giving us films like Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory”. Lulu Wang made us remember how much we love our grandmas in “The Farewell” and Shia LaBeouf showed us the specific and cathartic toll that acting and fatherhood can take on a person.
None of these personal stories compare to the one told by longtime friends-turned-collaborators Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails with “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”. Talbot and Fails grew up in the city by the bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge and its park in their backyard. The resulting film spools together their shared upbringing, their shared difficulties, and the stories that make them the best of friends.
One of the most gorgeous films made in the last few years, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” gives reason to watch Talbot and Fails as they grow behind and in front of the camera.
With Talbot directing and Fails starring, the co-writers shot their film without a permit, working first on a short film and then expanding that into this first feature, one that was nearly a decade in the making. The film follows Fails playing a version of himself as he attempts to find a home in San Francisco, a rapidly changing city fraught with gentrification. He, along with his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors), fight for his childhood home and reckon with the loss of their community.
One of the most gorgeous films made in the last few years, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” gives reason to watch Talbot and Fails as they grow behind and in front of the camera. Talbot allows Fails to exist in little moments in time, sitting in a sort of prolonged silence as he moves through life. A tone of honesty floods the film, and if you’ve lost anything or anyone or any place in your life, you cannot help but relate to these men. A thumping heart and soul attaches itself to “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and the distinct yet common nature of this story resonates far beyond the 2-hour runtime.
Fails holds his own as a lead actor, but Majors completely steals every scene, existing in a middle ground of sorts, not accepted into his community or the black members that fill his surroundings. He shows major acting chops and identifies the feelings you express when you aren’t accepted by those around you. Though he’s likely to be looked over, he deserves awards consideration from every guild and every academy, and he belongs on the biggest stages and the biggest films. He’s that good.
Joining Fails and Major is Danny Glover and Rob Morgan, two actors that consistently bring a level of consistent depth to their performances. Playing various family members, Glover and Morgan match the honesty brought forth by Fails. They play their roles, but allow the two younger men to have their turn, giving them room to shine.
The film even features some essential San Francisco weirdness, and for that, Bay area dwellers are sure to thank the filmmaking friends, who have become minor cult heroes in Northern California. They gave San Franciscans a movie they can call their own. They personified the feelings of generations of citizens, those that don’t feel at home in a place where they once knew the names of every corner store on every block. The city isn’t just a backdrop; it’s a full-fledged character, one with highs, lows, and lots of hills in between.
With top-level performances and a humanistic story, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” establishes Talbot and Fails as two filmmakers with heartfelt intentions and tremendous abilities.