This is not the San Francisco that we think we know. It’s not the glowing colours of Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City, nor is it the Lombard Street, the lurid Golden Gate Bridge bathed in sunshine or the Fisherman’s Wharf of the tourist brochures. This is a San Francisco where pollution is taking its toll, where that iconic bridge is shrouded in fog, where community means nothing and gentrification everything, and where heritage is just another stop on the tourist trail.
Chances are you won’t see another film at this year’s London Film Festival quite like Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man In San Francisco. Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) is preoccupied by a traditional, 19th century style mansion in the Bay area of San Francisco. He doesn’t live there, but he’s its self-appointed guardian, painting window ledges and tending the garden, much to the annoyance of the owners. He’s helped by best friend and aspiring playwright Mont (Jonathan Majors) who uses the neighbourhood and its characters as inspiration for his writing – including the local bad boys who constantly give them grief. When the occupants of the house move out, Jimmie and Mont see their chance and take it. Jimmie’s dream is about to come true – living in the only house he’s ever wanted.
It is literally the house of his dreams, because he was raised with the story that his grandfather built it in the late 1940s. At the time he was known as the First Black Man In San Francisco and Jimmie’s attachment to the story and the building is the reason for him being its unofficial caretaker. It’s only later than he discovers his dream is founded on nothing more substantial than that San Fran fog which smothers the city. So what should he do with his life now, especially as the house, beautiful though it is, is seen as nothing more than a money making machine for the local realtor, a beacon in an area where homes are functional, run-down and generally unloved?
A film with a rambling narrative, where ideas and characters are more important than story, The Last Black Man In San Francisco is a lyrical combination of a meditation on contemporary issues and an urban hymn, one to the ability of communities to survive whatever the corporates throw at them, be it gentrification, pollution or anything else. The money men don’t care about the city, but Jimmie does – although, as he points out to a pair of strangers on the bus, you only get to hate San Francisco once you’ve learned to love it. And, despite everything, he loves it.
Profoundly emotional and with a broad streak of melancholy that draws you more than willingly into the world of Jimmie and Mont, the delicacy in its writing leaves you free to take away as much or as little as you want. It has a generosity of spirit that the city hasn’t extended to Jimmie. San Francisco may have left him behind, but this is a film that won’t leave you for a long time. Go with an open mind. You will leave with an open heart.
Freda Cooper | ★★★ ★1/2
Drama | Cert: 15 | London Film Festival 4, 5 and 11 October 2019 | UK, 25 October 2019 | Dir. Joe Talbot | Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Rob Morgan.