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The Last Black Man in San Francisco is so good, it’s hard to believe it’s a debut feature

Part biography, part love letter, the movie is an elegy for a city lost to time.

Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Critics like to call films “portraits” of things or people, but in the case of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, that’s nearly literal. You could take almost any shot — of faces, buildings, roadside weeds — and hang it on a gallery wall, then look at it for hours. I found myself wanting to pause the movie (impossible in a theater) and just see what the movie beckoned me to see.

That’s to cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra’s credit, of course, but it’s also what elevates the feature debut from merely interesting to something terrific. Director Joe Talbot and his close collaborator, Jimmie Fails, have crafted something special in Last Black Man: Yes, it’s a portrait of San Francisco, but also of dislocation and change and friendship.

And most of all, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a love letter — not a romantic one, but the kind you write when you can no longer hold on to a relationship that nonetheless shaped you profoundly. Richly textured and vividly rendered, it’s clearly the fruit of a lifelong love.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a sort-of true story about two young men and the city they love

“You can’t hate it unless you love it,” one character says of San Francisco near the end of the film. No kidding. It takes time, dedication, and careful attention to be specific in your frustration with a city: the way the trash smells on the sidewalk; the funky public transit; the way your favorite places tend to disappear, replaced by something else.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco loves San Francisco more than it hates it. But its specificity suffuses the story. Fails and Talbot, San Francisco natives who’ve been friends for more than a decade, wrote the film’s story partly based on Fails’s life. And though those experiences have clearly been smoothed out into a fictionalized film, it still feels like nonfiction. Fails, after all, plays a character named ... Jimmie Fails.

Jimmie lives (or really, crashes) with his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and Montgomery’s grandfather (Danny Glover) in a cramped apartment on the outskirts of town. The two of them belong in this neighborhood; it’s their home. But they also seem like outsiders. A group of young men across the street (credited as the “Greek chorus”) makes fun of them whenever they venture outside. Montgomery spends days scribbling in a notebook, trying to write a play. Jimmie, who spent part of his childhood homeless and living in a car with his father, can’t locate a good job.

Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, and Danny Glover in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, and Danny Glover in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

The pair often head over to a house in the gentrifying Fillmore District, a part of San Francisco that was previously dubbed the “Harlem of the West.” Jimmie’s family home is there, but it’s been out of his family for a long while. It’s out of place in the neighborhood, with 19th-century architecture, supposedly built by Jimmie’s grandfather in 1946, and Jimmie loves it more than anything. He keeps sneaking over to paint it and water the plants and tend to it, to the consternation of the white couple who’ve owned it for more than a decade.

Then they move out, and Jimmie hatches a plan with Montgomery to take it back, to recapture the only place where he’s felt at home.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco renders its city through its people

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (the title gathers meaning as the story moves along) is heartbreaking and elegiac in all the best ways. Everything that once made up the city, we realize along with Jimmie, is inexorably passing away. You just can’t recapture the past. Time can’t be rewound.

Yet his and Montgomery’s attempts to do so dip into something very fundamental about San Francisco, a city that has changed vastly over the past half-century, becoming in some ways unrecognizable. What’s most interesting about Last Black Man is that it looks backward and forward with gentle sadness about the delusions of both a mythical golden age and the shape of a gentrified future.

Most of all, it loves the people of the city. Last Black Man is populated with minor characters who don’t really figure into the plot — a real estate agent who grew up in San Francisco, an older couple who’ve been there a long time, a preacher who stands on a literal soapbox and rails against the changes, Jimmie’s mostly estranged parents — and the film treats all of them with affection, even love.

Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

That love is clear in the way the film frames their faces, their eyes, their surroundings. Watching Last Black Man, I found myself thinking of last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening, which similarly sought to develop a distinct visual vocabulary for depicting the lives of black people on film. Hale County resisted the expectations of its audience, deliberately framing subjects in ways that didn’t let us fill in the gaps in the narrative (what happened before this frame, what will happen next).

I felt, watching Last Black Man, the same sort of resistance. We see a San Francisco in the throes of change, yet the film concerns itself with that change mainly through the eyes of Jimmie, who loves it and notices every small, odd detail. It feels as much like a document of a place as a narrative film.

And the result is a portrait of a city through its people. It’s moving and a little enchanted by its subject, though there’s a sense that the enchantment is leaking away even for Jimmie. The Last Black Man in San Francisco shows unusual promise for a debut film, to be sure, but it also testifies to the love that went into it, both in Talbot and Fails’s friendship and in their relationship with their city. San Francisco’s future is uncertain, but I hope their collaboration has a long life.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco opens in theaters on June 7.