Review by David Baldwin
Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Mont (Jonathan Majors) are friends who do everything together. Jimmie lives at Mont’s house, but dreams of moving back into the home his Grandfather built in the Bay Area back in the 1940’s. Despite another couple living there, Jimmie tends to the gardens and paints the windows and trim outside. When he finds out they are divorcing, he tries to buy the house. And despite finding out he does not have nearly enough money to pay for it, Jimmie is determined to make it his own.
In a strictly visual sense, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and easily one of the most gorgeous films of the year thus far. Every single shot from the opening frame right up until the closing credits is captured and composed beautifully. The colour palette used here is stunning and makes for a truly miraculous work of art. There was a lot of hype and excitement for the film coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it is very easy to see why. I was practically mesmerized by Adam Newport-Berra’s breathtaking cinematography so often that I forgot what was actually going on within the story.
And in a way, I think that might be intentional.
Much like another A24 film released this week – Ari Astor’s breakup metaphor turned psychological nightmare Midsommar – The Last Black Man in San Francisco is more about the journey than it is the final destination. A lot happens within Jimmie and Mont’s greater story, but at the same time, not much happens either. The film spends more time tying together themes of poverty, nostalgia, displacement, gentrification and shared experiences than it does on its characters. It seems perfectly happy to just let these films be the focal points of the film. But the film also seems content just watching Jimmie paint and ride his skateboard. And watching Mont practice and rehearse his play. And rather simply, just watching Jimmie and Mont, along with everyone else in their lives, coming to terms with the devastating realization that they simply do not have a place they belong to anymore.
It is not the easiest material to grapple with and even days after watching the film, I still find it troubling to reflect on. Co-Writer/Director Joe Talbot intentionally makes the characters feel removed from the audience, using an arm’s length approach to our watching this story play out. It is an emotionally stirring and intimate film, but I never felt fully invested in any of the characters like I hoped I would. Which is not to say that any of the performances are bad – quite the opposite. Fails (who helped develop the story, basing it on his own life experiences) and Majors are terrific whether they are acting off of each other or are on their own. They hold the film together, often with just a glance, and bring a quiet and focused intensity to both of their roles. The supporting cast is very good as well, with the standout being Rob Morgan as Jimmie’s father. His role may not be the biggest, but every word he speaks volumes.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is visually stunning and packs some great performances. But for all the emotion on-screen, it left me feeling quite empty. The film lingers long after it ends, but I felt like something was missing to really push the film from being very good to being truly extraordinary. And the way the camera spends more time on the minutia of what is in the frame versus what is actually happening in the story makes it difficult to truly invest in the characters. I can appreciate its value and how visibly and tonally different it is from other films of its ilk – but I wanted to love it as opposed to simply really enjoying it.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is playing exclusively at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto starting today (tickets here) and will be expanding across Canada starting July 12!