The Last Black Man in San Francisco Movie Review
Old San Francisco is slowly fading away, consumed by hipsters, tech gurus, and rich people. The gentrification wave is an evil that seemingly cannot be stopped, according to the semi-quirky drama The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a poignant if sometimes muted tale not about racial tensions as much as it is about racial displacement—or replacement.
Directed by Joe Talbot and co-written by his pal Jimmie Fails, who also stars as Jimmie Fails, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a drama about Jimmie’s life, at least sort of. Largely unemployed and searching for a place in a city that has seemingly moved on without him, he continues to return to the large, ornate home his grandfather built, painting the exterior, watering the flowers, and otherwise showing it sincere love.
Even though it’s now owned by an elderly white couple who don’t necessarily appreciate him tending to their property as if it were his own.
Fails delivers a fine performance in what is clearly a personal story for the man, his feature length debut an impressive turn. He makes for an intriguing if not enthralling protagonist, an instantly relatable if flawed individual who seems unable to accept that things change. He and Talbot present a good argument for why change isn’t always good, or at least should not be accepted without question.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco too is Talbot’s directorial debut (his only other credit a 2017 short that also starred Fails), and it’s an impressive entrance. There is nothing grandiose about the film, but it serves as a perfect albeit odd love letter to a city the two friends clearly hold dear. Talbot paints the film with color and characters and details that are too exact, and sometimes too strange, to not be real, and touches the material with a consistently humorous brush.
The movie doesn’t land quite as strongly as some other recently released movies about race and change—Blindspotting being the perfect if unfair comparison (because it’s near perfect)—but that’s in part because there appears to be much less anger and fear behind Talbot and Fails’ story and message. Even still, The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s first act or two are the strongest, the story content with bringing the characters and the city to life and presenting the problem at hand. The third act feels much less confident as Talbot and Fails struggle to solidify their message and bring things to conclusion. Frankly, my attention began to wane as the end credits neared.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a terrific debut by two San Franciscan locals, a sometimes captivating drama that presents the dangers or at least the overlooked costs of gentrification—and simply change. It isn’t quite the powerhouse some have made it out to be, but it’s a worthwhile exploration of race, class, and societal goals nonetheless.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.