'Last Black Man in San Francisco' goes home against the odds

How powerful is the mystical bond between the title character and the elegant old Fillmore District mini mansion where he grew up?

So strong that now, as an adult many years later, he does painting and landscaping around the place — despite the fact that he doesn’t live there and that the current freaked-out occupants keep forbidding him to do so.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is 30-ish Jimmie Fails (both the character and the actor who plays him), whose unfortunate surname seems apt for the story at hand. After bumming around, we’re not sure where, he’s back home in the inner Bay City, tooling around on his skateboard, changing diapers in an elder care home, sleeping on the floor of his old pal Mont’s cramped bedroom. Jimmie and his life might charitably be described as works in progress.

Gentle Mont (Jonathan Majors) is the kinda guy who works a soul-crushing fish market job by day and happily sits with and describes TV shows to his blind grandfather (Danny Glover) at night. But he has talent and grand ideas — sketching skillfully, designing and writing a play.

'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'



  • Starring: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover.
  • Rating: R for language, brief nudity and drug use.

Neither man has a significant female other, but Jimmie has a deep love object of affection in the form of that beautiful old house with the “witch’s hat” turret of his childhood. It may look like other Victorians of the 1880s, but, in fact, it was built by his grandfather in 1946 — and he’s obsessed with the all-consuming yearning to inhabit it again.

“Think they’d let me live there, like a caretaker?” he wonders.

“No,” is Mont’s short honest answer.

But suddenly the white folks who live there get evicted. Emboldened to hear there’s an estate issue that could take years to sort out, Jimmie does what he’s been dying to do — breaks in, runs around, exalts in finding the glorious parlor, the woodwork, light fixtures, stained glass, even the bookcases and organ still in perfect condition! Icing on the cake: His Aunt Wanda (Tichina Arnold) has many original furnishings she rescued and stowed away, available for a long-awaited homecoming.

“Last Black Man,” the feature film debut of director Joe Talbot, won the 2019 Sundance Festival directing award. A fifth-generation San Franciscan, he co-scripted it with and from the life of his childhood friend Jimmie Fails. Mr. Talbot’s father David wrote “Season of the Witch” (2012), a much-acclaimed history of San Francisco in the 1960s and ’70s. His grandfather was film and early TV actor Lyle Talbot, best known as the bumbling neighbor on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”

Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra’s strikingly evocative camerawork makes the most of San Fran’s peerless vistas in which the foreground action moves while background bridges and bays do not, and trolleys go impossibly up hills at 90-degree angles. It’s an elegiac homage to the city, indeed, doing for San Francisco what Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” (2016) did for Miami.

My favorites of the film’s many bittersweet vignettes: Jimmie politely introducing himself to suspicious white neighbors, a streetperson singing Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro,” a nudist sitting in a bus kiosk, and Jimmie’s chance reunion with his awkward mother on a train.

The two leading actors are terrific. Mr. Fails’ moody Jimmie and Mr. Majors’ sweet Mont are both full of conviction, and breathe life into the male-bonding matter — friendship vs. solitude — as well as the bigger issues of urban housing crisis/gentrification. The slick white real-estate guy (Finn Wittrock) is a good believable foil to Jimmie’s sincerity and naive belief in squatter’s rights — all of which serves as build-up to Mont’s climactic “big show” with its big revelation.

Who’s afraid of the wolf at Jimmie’s door?

Anybody who’s ever been evicted. I had that charming experience twice, once with two small children in tow: It’s not so much losing the home itself as losing what it represents — and your dignity.

“Last Black Man’s” plot bites off more than can be comfortably chewed, with an ending equally uncomfortable to swallow. But it’s exultant in its chaotic excess, visually beautiful, emotionally rich and psychologically fascinating, proving both the truth — and the falsehood — that you can’t go home again.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

Subscribe to BarryParis.com RSS Feed