‘The Last Black Man In San Francisco’: Jonathan Majors Is Oscar-Worthy In Arthouse Film More About Black Male Friendship Than Gentrification [Sundance Review]

February 1st 2019

The latest collaboration between A24 and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment since Moonlight would surely have a lot to live up to, right? In comes The Last Black Man In San Francisco. The film's screenwriters Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails do double duty in this film; the former serving as director and Fails starring as a character named after him and inspired by events in his life. The feature film is based on their short of the same name, also directed by Talbot and starring Fails.

Beautifully shot with Talbot at the helm, and backed by a brooding orchestra, The Last Black Man In San Francisco boasts impressive performances, particularly an Oscar-caliber showing from Jonathan Majors (HBO’s Lovecraft Country). The film is a solid effort despite a few missteps —completing a trilogy of recent Bay Area flicks, including Daveed Diggs' Blindspotting and Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You.

For better or worse, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an arthouse flick and the first quarter of the film moves like the pages in a high art photo book, with picturesque frames only rivaled by its Plan B predecessor, Moonlight. Amidst a changing San Francisco, including guys in hazmat suits picking up trash as young Black girls walk the sidewalk, Jimmie and Montgomery are trying to stay afloat and figure out where they fit in—together. Jimmie, estranged from both of his parents and with nothing much of his own, stays with the socially-awkward, yet intelligent and eccentric Montgomery and his father (Danny Glover). To get by, Jimmie works as a nursing home assistant and Montgomery works at a fish market. On the side, Montgomery is a very talented writer who is hoping to showcase his first play. 

Each and every week, Jimmie and Montgomery go to visit a house in a now-gentrified area of the city, and Jimmie cleans and paints it; he even waters the garden. Why? He thinks the current owners aren’t taking care of it. And what’s his relation to the house? He says that is grandfather built it, but his father (Rob Morgan) lost it. That’s no issue for Jimmie as he and Montgomery soon take up residence once the house becomes vacant due to a family feud. Nothing means more to Jimmie than getting this house back. It’s all that he has. Things go swimmingly for a while until a tragic circumstance and death force the duo to reevaluate the reality of their situation and swallow the truth, no matter how hard that may be.

While the theme of gentrification is sowed into the film, it’s nowhere near the central narrative. One theme that’s larger than gentrification is one that’s closely tied to it— the inability to pass down of wealth from generation to generation in the Black community and how it puts Black people automatically at a disadvantage. There is no legacy-building if you are unable to have a strong foundation.

But what’s really at the heart of the film is the relationship between Jimmie and Montgomery, which is one that is virtually never depicted on screen. It may be one of the rawest, non-familial and non-romantic relationships we’ve seen. It’s an intimate one without any notions or allusions to sexuality. They are warm, caring and vulnerable with each other. Not once are the toxic notions of masculinity that society has put on the shoulders of Black men rear their ugly head in this relationship. We often think of #BlackLove as one that’s romantic and this shatters that common thought.

Fails gives a solid performance as Jimmie, trying to come to grips with his reality while contemplating about the future. He has a bright future as a writer and an actor. In supporting roles, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Danny Glover, Finn Wittrock all give worthy performances. But it’s Jonathan Majors whose multi-faceted performance as Montgomery is guaranteed to be one of the most interesting of the year. This is most evident in one of the final scenes of the film in which he gives a moving monologue about the death of a friend and the house at which they are squatting. The monologue takes multiple directions and POVs, which mirror the many dimensions of this character and the situation that he and Jimmie are in. This scene (and the character overall) would probably have been difficult for most actors to do, but Majors excels at it.

As far as its faults, as a first-time feature filmmaker, Talbot seems to want to say a lot with this film. At the end of the film, none of the messages seem to come to a conclusion, leaving viewers yearning for more. Much of the film could have also been left on the cutting room floor for a more concise movie. And while the arthouse-style is beautifully captured here, sometimes it came across as too much and the filmmakers could have opted for more simplicity.

Still, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is worth seeing and provides thought-provoking and impactful performances audiences won't soon forget. 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2019. It will be released theatrically by A24 in 2019. 

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