Patrick Preziosi on Joe Talbot’s ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ (2019)
The twin neighbourhoods of Bayview-Hunters Point, located on an Eastern peninsula in San Francisco, are the unfortunate home to the decommissioned Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, whose shutting contributed greatly to the rate of unemployment amongst the local African-American population. Close to the beginning of Joe Talbot’s directorial debut, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, protagonists Jimmie Fails (playing himself, as he wrote the screenplay with Talbot, taking inspiration from his own upbringing) and Montgomery (Johnathan Majors) are told by a fellow neighbour that the bay is polluted because the government “built the atomic bomb and shit” at the shipyard. What initially reads as a humorous but superfluous moment of misinformation corrects itself on further extratextual research: the shipyard was a hub of experimentation on ships within the range of atomic testing, and though now no longer operative, is responsible for the chokehold of pollution that remains.
This is the trajectory of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, whose handcrafted feel isn’t just attributed to Fails—his childhood was one of the group homes and squatting—but to the city itself, depicted in all its ailing honesty. The opening doozy of an image of men in hazmat suits “decontaminating” the bay can smack almost of science-fiction. But when a young black girl skips by, and a local street preacher wonders aloud why the community isn’t given similar protection, the moment is all too prescient.
From this stark moment of juxtaposition, however, Talbot and Fails opt for a more emotional (and sometimes quite humorous) tenor that is dictated by rich characterisation, both of the inhabitants and the place. It is an overtly political film, but one that is all the more successful for how explicitly personal of a story it is: throughout, skateboarding Jimmy — with artist-playwright best friend Mont in tow — tries to lay rightful claim to a grand Victorian house he claims was built by his grandfather in the mid-twentieth century. The area, as we are informed by a segwaying tour group, was once known as the Harlem of San Francisco; what the tour guide doesn’t say is, like many places now, it’s effectively been gentrified. For a kid who has experienced homelessness and eviction on a first-hand basis, Jimmy jumps at the opportunity when its previous white owners suddenly leave to take care of extended family issues.
Jimmy’s brief time at the house as a kid, though fleeting and possibly even somewhat misremembered, serves as a small stake of ownership for a black man in a city that guarantees just the opposite. He and Mont crowd into the house of the latter’s blind grandfather (played by Danny Glover with expert restraint) in Bayview like the two are brothers, but when the three watch classic films together, Mont and his grandfather sit on the couch, while Jimmy is relegated to the floor. Jimmy’s car, which once also served as a home, has been nabbed by Jimmy’s in-and-out father’s smooth-talking friend. Even before they can truly enter the house unperturbed, Jimmy and Mont tend to its chipped paint and overgrown garden, much to the gatekeeping chagrin of its middle-aged, white owners, and the affectionate resonance the two friends feel extends beyond just the physicality of the space.
To ensure the poeticism of Jimmy’s headstrong reacquisition, Talbot passes the baton of cinematographer to Adam Newport-Berra, production designer Jona Tochet, and composer, Emile Mosseri, a trifecta of formalists who render the film with burnished, painterly tones. Given the backdrop of the Victorian architecture, and period-appropriate furniture provided by Jimmy’s aunt Wanda (Tichina Arnold), Talbot and his team create a series of autumnal tableaux that seem to mirror the mahogany finish of the very house.
Talbot and Fails aren’t interested primarily in image-making for image-making’s sake; the inherent beauty of the setting is consistently offset by the city’s homeless population or the unjust destruction of rent-controlled housing. Rather than act as moments of departure from the central narrative, they occur rather symbiotically, attaining an expressionistic weight not always found in films so confrontationally political. Newport-Berra’s camera, as much as it trains itself around the walls of the home, is also just as interested in the physical contours of the face. Whether it be Jimmy’s estranged mother or the boisterous but loving Greek chorus of young black men perpetually perched outside Mont’s grandfather’s house, every player is given the proper attention.
And for a film that is as visually ravishing as it is, The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s emotional beats exist at the convergence of such imagery with prime performances. Especially a revelation is the soft-spoken Majors, who plays Mont with a heart-tugging curiosity and attentiveness. Fails possesses a glance that suggests something beyond the current events at hand, and this gaze is in part what helps solidify his identification with the house, especially when put up against his scheming, now bootleg DVD selling father, played by a scene-stealing Rob Morgan.
When Jimmy goes to see his father, he trades out his skate attire for a bomber jacket and joggers, as if to prove a kind of “blackness” that his father would think otherwise absent. It’s in these thematic developments — also including Mont’s literary aspirations, or Kofi’s (of the Greek chorus, played by Jamal Trulove) distaste for physical violence — that the film seems to align itself with Bill Gunn’s Personal Problems (1980) or Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding (1983). These totems of black independent filmmaking (grossly underseen upon their respective releases) also identified the internal fissures one can experience on account of race, family, and physical location, to overwhelmingly affecting results. So as we know Jimmy’s preoccupation with the house is more than just having any old residence, we know that The Last Black Man in San Francisco functions poignantly just the same.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is showing in UK cinemas 25th October 2019.