The city is still standing — it’s booming, in fact. But what has become of its soul?
This question could apply to a number of American cities. In “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a remarkable urban elegy, director (and SF native) Joe Talbot looks at his hometown with a poet’s eye and a mourner’s passion. I’m not sure exactly how this movie works, or what it’s doing at all times. But I know I’ll have a hard time forgetting it.
The film’s central character is Jimmie Fails, played by the director’s longtime friend, whose name is Jimmie Fails. The events portrayed are loosely inspired by experiences from Fails’ life.
In the movie, Jimmie is obsessed with a big Victorian house in a historically black section of San Francisco. The neighborhood’s been gentrified, but Jimmie insists that this house, which he grew up in, was built by his grandfather. He still drops by once in a while to work in the garden or touch up the paint, much to the confusion of the couple who actually live there.
When those folks suddenly move out — evidently caught up in the spiraling cost of living — it makes perfect sense for Jimmie and his writer pal Mont (Jonathan Majors) to move in. Unofficially, of course.
So this movie is partly about this whimsical storyline, but it also spends a great deal of time on curious asides and surreal touches. On the latter point, the shipyards around this neighborhood have dealt with radioactive material in the past, so strange four-eyed fish are washing up on the shore.
The two little-known actors easily carry the movie, but there are welcome appearances by Danny Glover, as Mont’s sight-impaired granddad, and Mike Epps, as a large-talking local character. Glover isn’t on screen that much, yet his memories of the way the city used to be give the film a melancholy grounding.
Also terrific is Rob Morgan (a “Stranger Things” regular) in a scorching turn as Jimmie’s father, the man who lost the house in question. No wonder he looks haunted.
The great thing about “Last Black Man” is that it doesn’t hit you over the head with its concerns, even if it does culminate in Mont’s impassioned stage play. Instead, this movie is all about casting a spell.
That it does, from its stray bits of visual poetry to its varied musical collage, which includes “San Francisco,” the 1960s anthem sung here by Michael Marshall. “Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” like the song says, and approach this movie in the same spirit.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (3½ stars)
A singular film — part poetry, part urban elegy — about a pair of friends who “unofficially” occupy an old Victorian house in San Francisco, the former childhood home to one of them. A mood piece with surreal touches, this one-of-a-kind film casts a spell that’s hard to shake.
Rating: R, for language, nudity
Opening Friday: SIFF Cinema Uptown