The Last Black Man in San Francisco

 

starstar

 


Promising material handled in a way that makes the film’s acclaim surprising.

 
Last Black Man in San Francisco

 

As most of us know already, San Francisco is a great location for a movie (Vertigo and Bullitt instantly come to mind) but to have a fresh film set there is welcome, especially when it is as atmospheric as this first feature by Joe Talbot. Furthermore, as its very title indicates, this new piece brings in something unfamiliar being a story about African Americans living in the city. But, once I have added the fact that The Last Black Man in San Francisco is ably acted, I have used up nearly everything that can be said in its favour: indeed, I am totally amazed that the poster for it is adorned by quotes from American critics indicating that it is one of the best films of the year.

 

The two central characters are Montgomery Allen, a would-be playwright, and his best friend Jimmie Falls. Mont is played by Jonathan Majors but the role of Jimmie is taken by an actor whose name is indeed Jimmie Falls. This is explained by the fact that, although Talbot’s film was written by him and Rob Richert, its story is a fiction that draws heavily on Falls’s own real-life experiences. At the centre of the tale as told here is the fact that Jimmie grow up in the Bay area in a house in the Fillmore district. He claims that it was built by his grandfather and, although it is now owned by others, he seeks to renovate it and later he unofficially moves in when it falls empty. But what had once been a black area is now transformed, gentrified indeed. That change would seem to be a central theme in this film but, as presented, it feels imbedded in a rambling narrative that is just as much concerned with the bond between Jimmie and Mont and with Jimmie’s seemingly deep need to rely on the past history of the house even though it may be false. With astute writing these various element might have combined to give the piece a richness, but instead their interaction deprives the film of a central focus and of the power that would go with that.

 

It is equally damaging that the characters are not rounded out. Mont lives with his blind grandfather (a mere cameo for the film’s best-known player, Danny Glover) while Jimmie has an aunt (Tichina Arnold) and a disreputable father (Rob Morgan) and has a brief chance meeting with his mother. But the pair are given no friends other than Kofi (Jamal Trulove) who now prefers to spend his time with tough guys in the neighbourhood. If neither Jimmie nor Mont is given any relationship with a girl, it is also the case that there is no hint of anything sexual between them. Thus, while the subsidiary figures remain undeveloped, our central duo lack depth too: there is certainly some contrast in their manner, but that only prompts thoughts of, say, Abbott and Costello who could function in that way because they were just clowns. Nothing in the writing gives Jimmie and Mont the depth and individuality that would make us care about them. Furthermore, Talbot’s direction adds to this by adopting a high degree of stylisation in the visuals thus undermining the harsh realism that seems to be called for. When San Francisco’s most famous song (“Be sure to wear flowers in your hair”) is heard on the soundtrack it does for a moment provide a true ironic focus, but other songs come up on the soundtrack too and do so in a self-conscious way that adds yet another element of stylisation and weakens the impact of the interesting original music score by Emile Mosseri.

 

If for me The Last Black Man in San Francisco never finds its feet, the later stages only increase the sense that this is a misfire. Mont all of a sudden comes up with a play which is improbably mounted in the house and then reveals itself as a memorial to Kofi who has been killed. However, he is another character who has been so weakly etched in that there is no weight to this scene. The film’s conclusion should be touching but the final shot, which is presented without any detail to back it up, while arguably intended to be taken on a symbolical level merely feels ludicrous. Buried deep in this film is material that could have been hugely rewarding, but what we get quite fails to do it justice - or such is my view.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Jimmie Falls, Jonathan Majors, Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan, Mike Epps, Finn Whitrock, Thora Birch, Danny Glover, Jamal Trulove.

 

Dir Joe Talbot, Pro Khaliah Neal, Joe Talbot, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Christina Oh, Screenplay Joe Talbot and Rob Richert, from a story by Jimmie Falls and Joe Talbot, Ph Adam Newport-Berra, Pro Des Jona Tochet, Ed David Marks, Music Emile Mosseri, Costumes Amanda Ramirez.

 

A24/Plan B Entertainment/Longshot Features/Mavia Entertainment-Universal Pictures.
121 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 25 October 2019. Cert. 15.