“You can’t hate San Francisco if you don’t love San Francisco,” Jimmie Fails says at a key moment in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a captivating love-hate letter to the City by the Bay that comes straight from the heart.
Jimmie Fails is both the actor’s name and the name of his character — and he also shares story credit with the movie’s director and his best friend, Joe Talbot. Jimmie is introduced here as a man lovingly maintaining a three-story townhouse with a view of the Golden Gate. The house, he tells people, was built by his grandfather in 1946, and he is determined to make it look as good as new. The problem is that Jimmie doesn’t live in the house, and the elderly white couple who do would rather he leave them alone.
Jimmie is now sharing a room with his best friend, Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), who spends his nights giving audio descriptions of old movies to his blind grandfather (Danny Glover). Montgomery works as a fishmonger, but in his off hours he sketches and paints in his notebook, collecting material for a play. His current focus is the group of young black men who hang around near his house, talking and razzing each other at all hours, and becoming the movie’s Greek chorus.
Talbot, who co-wrote the screenplay with Rob Richert, finds in Jimmie an Everyman, fearful that the city he loves is becoming, because of gentrification and a pricey housing market, something he doesn’t recognize where he can’t afford to live. But his choices are limited: Staying with his con-man dad (Rob Morgan) in a sketchy part of town; living with his aunt, Wanda (Tichina Arnold), out in the boonies; or, when the elderly couple is forced out in an estate dispute, occupying his granddad’s house as a squatter.
The movie sets up a fascinating assortment of neighbors, from the street preacher (Willie Hen) warning about the evils that attack San Francisco from all sides, to the homeless man (Tim “Opera” Blevins) singing flawless Puccini on the street.
Talbot and Fails deliver a heartfelt appraisal of life in modern San Francisco, complimented by the city sites captured by cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra. Through many devices, including a climactic reading of Montgomery’s long-gestating play, the filmmakers show they love their city in spite of — or maybe because of — its many flaws.
(This review first appeared on this site on Feb. 2, when the movie played at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.)
‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’
Opened June 7 in select cities; opens Friday, June 21, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for language, brief nudity and drug use. Running time: 121 minutes.