The Last Black Man in San Francisco

The Last Black Man in San Francisco ★★★★

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a gentrification story but it’s a very peculiar and particular one. It’s about what people see in others in tiny fractured moments of time in a community and how much people can change entering a new setting. The role of the corner boys who boast with chests out but can be unguarded in a schvitz, at a play, or in grief. The maybe crazy man who paints the trimming of another person’s house while they’re gone but we learn has a personal association with the inside and how different he is when he’s inside; purposeful, even. A nude man casually sits at a bus stop and the fellow painter outcast he’s next to sees it as odd but says nothing, meanwhile a bus  full  of tech bros stops to chant “this guy fucks!” To the painter on the bus bench and the trolley of tools, they’re giving a tip of the hat to San Francisco’s odd spirit in different ways: silence at the nudist and pointing and shouting at the nudist. One reacts with silence because they’ve been there for years and the group is boisterous because it’s a validation of why they’re there, even if their presence will eradicate all weirdness, here’s a moment that they saw and can attach that belief to. It’s the never ending lore of a city from different generations and going in different directions.

When cities change from money infusion there is a loss of vibrancy to a place but for those pushed out there’s also an introspection of how much permission do they grant a place to be who they see themselves as. Is it the neighborhood that makes one feel comfortable or are you comfortable in yourself as well? The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a poignant oddity; when it observes it’s filmed as portraiture akin to Barry Jenkins and when it speaks it’s full of paused humor akin to Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki. I don’t know your life, says a woman in a store, exasperated by a customer. This film is a loving glimpse of individuals who are multi-dimensional and worn by a city but now are only seen in passing by the new money that is walling them out. They don’t know their lives. They don’t pause. And the hanger-ons themselves, many don’t see how multi-dimensional they are either. It helps to have someone there to pause and observe. Like Jimmie’s friend Montgomery. Like filmmaker Joe Talbot. 

What a lovely debut film for Talbot, actor/writer Jimmie Fails, and a coming out party for Jonathan Majors. The images, which pause like the humor, are painterly and patient. Fails is a humble guide but it’s Majors’ Montgomery who is major, holding in all those pauses and bursting at the seams with love because of it. The ending feels adrift and separate but that’s perhaps because it’s no longer under Montgomery’s observant eye to see.

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