The Last Black Man in San Francisco ★★★★★

How many New Yorkers who saw Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing when it was first released in 1989 suddenly felt alien in their own city? I’d guess a lot of them. (Hell, I was stunned and disoriented after seeing it in Pittsburgh.) The Last Black Man in San Francisco is not as fiery and confrontational as Lee’s masterpiece, but it’s no less effective in re-framing a city I have lived in for 25+ years.

The obvious signposts of gentrification and disparate wealth that powered the conflict in the other two Bay Area films of the last year, Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting, are here, too. Last Black Man, though, goes deeper—it’s more richly poetic and inventive (no small feat) and hitches these conceits to the personal idiosyncrasies of the two main leads in ways that feel true and often heartbreaking.

This is singular because we rarely see Bay Area African-Americans onscreen (let alone in many San Franciscans’ own daily comings and goings). But then to have these characters transcend the archetypes—stereotypes—we’ve unintentionally (and sadly) come to expect is even rarer. I felt as much akin to the Jimmie and Montgomery characters as I did shamefully ignorant of my hometown’s rapidly mutating DNA that is excluding whole swaths of people like them. I felt their alienation, their need to find a creative outlet in which to express it—yet also complicit in exacerbating that struggle. How can anyone managing to live here now not feel this way?

All this would be moot, though, if the film’s craft wasn’t also so well realized. Last Black Man’s first 10 minutes and last 20 are a combined half hour of some of the best art committed to metaphorical celluloid this year or any year. There are always compelling stories. But it’s compelling storytelling that makes the difference. Last Black Man has the latter in spades.

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