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‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ stuns visually and emotionally

| Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Claire Kopischke | The Observer

Many film critics like to tie movies into little bows near the beginning of their articles, summarizing them with their own premise of the message.

Doing this for “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is not only difficult, but it does the film a great disservice. I read a few reviews to ensure what I write here is original, and every time a writer attempted to pin one theme of the movie I thought, “But not really.” The film premiered in the summer but was the furthest thing from a blockbuster. It gracefully conquers themes such as friendship, brotherhood and loss. It’s about fathers and sons, the stories we tell, the stories we believe and the identities we create. It’s about race and gentrification, home and the past. If I had to pick one thing, it’s about living in a city in this world we’ve made. It’s about life.

The film features two young men living in a rougher part of town outside of San Francisco proper. They are friends but act more like brothers, living with each other, visiting one another at work and even sharing a skateboard. By the end of the first scene, it is obvious this film is not only about a house or a city, but the relationships that arise from such places.

Mont (Jonathan Majors) is a socially awkward artist who carries around a sketchbook and is writing a play that, it is suggested, he has been working on for years. Mont has three characteristics that are desirable in any friend: he does not care what people think — but in a genuine self-assured way, not a jerky teenager way — he finds not only the good but the uniqueness in everybody he meets and he loves Jimmie.

Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) is less sure of himself, painfully aware of his lot in life and constantly frustrated by the world around him. Their relationship is beautiful because, like the characters themselves, it does not fill an archetype or have an obvious origin. Jimmie believes his father built a gorgeous mansion in San Francisco and takes care of it when the owners are out. He is motivated by the dream of one day returning to it. Though the plot runs thin, the story is full of complexities and intrigue brought by the characters and their interaction with the people around them.

The movie arises from a time where technology permeates through every part of life, yet the main character does not carry a phone. When social media often causes people to display one version of themselves, this film shows their ever increasing number of dimensions. In addition to these diversions from current tropes, the film also proves that though every person — besides Jimmie — has a video camera in their back pocket, cinematography will never be truly democratized. It takes talent. The work of cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra made me realize how often we settle for passable work from his colleagues. The way this film is shot escalates film making from its goal of imitating life to the goal of being better than life, to be more beautiful, more colorful and more awe-provoking than it.

Though the cinematography offers a stunning view of the city, the driving force behind “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and the city itself are the characters. Almost every character is not only authentic in the movie, but fully fleshed-out. Like the film in general, they defy stereotypes, archetypes and have many layers of complexity. I can identify a person with the same spirit of every character in this film in my own neighborhood, and, if I cannot, I can see the character fitting right into the community if transposed.

Debut director Joe Talbot and longtime friend Jimmie Fallis create a film that is so authentic, there is no surprise when one realizes it is semi-autobiographical. A native San Franciscan himself, four out of the first six images on Google Images search feature Talbot in a San Francisco hat. His love for his city seeps through every crevasse of the film. A movie is unique to its time. It features a story familiar to thousands, being in love with a city that is constantly changing.

The movie’s performances are captivating and impressive. The person I went with started quietly clapping in the middle of the film after one particularly stunning moment before realizing what she was doing. Though this film was more than I could ever ask for, it causes me to ask its creators the same question Mont asks Mike Marshall after his emotional performance of the song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” — “What else you got?”

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