'The Last Black Man in San Francisco' Review | BFI London Film Festival 2019
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
After winning multiple prizes at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is one of the hottest tickets on the festival circuit this year. It's no wonder, really, considering it's combination of sumptuous visuals and timely subject matter.
The film is, as you can imagine, highly racially charged, and tackles historical erasure, anti-black gentrification and the ongoing American water crisis in its first act, alone.
This might seem like too much to tackle, but the narrative navigates this burden effectively by focusing in on just two characters.
Stunning slow motion sequences dot the entirety of the picture, and a breathtaking use of score and cinematography combine to create a unique, ethereal vibe. Most of these dream-like moments are followed up with very dry, comedic beats, and this structural tug-of-war between dream and reality is thematically prominent in the narrative too.
The film stars Jimmie Fails who, here, plays himself. San Francisco was created as an ode to a city he once knew, and the events of his early life went on to inspire the screenplay (for which he has a writing credit alongside director Joe Talbot). The hazy quality of the film, then, serves to represent the intangibility of his San Francisco, a place to which (due to his own displacement) Jimmie can never truly return.
Fails is supported on screen by Jonathan Majors who plays the character of Montgomery Allen. Allen is Fails' on-screen best friend, and serves to offer further commentary on the impact of gentrification on black communities and on black men. Fails' performance is beautifully subtle in its emotion, but I feel that it is the role of Allen which has the most awards potential (alongside Talbot's direction).
Danny Glover and Finn Whitrock round out the main cast. While the former is as brilliant as ever, Whitrock's appearance, I admit, pulled me entirely out of the film. It's not that he gave a sub-par performance, not by any means. I was distracted because I recently re-watched If Beale Street Could Talk, a film also about racial inequality in which he basically plays the same role.
In both films, Whitrock features as a white man in a position of power, and in both films there are multiple scenes in which he sits opposite our black protagonist while delivering some unfair news. I became concerned that he was genuinely playing the same character; was A24 retroactively starting their own cinematic universe a la Marvel Studios? Was Whitrock was their Nick Fury? Alas not, but I was distracted regardless.
The film dragged a little towards the end of its second act, but a well delivered plot-twist pulled me back in just in time for its (surprisingly emotional) finale. The Last Black Man's magnificent soundtrack/score is just the cherry on the cake; I've had Michael Marshall's cover of 'San Francisco' on repeat all weekend.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco takes a fresh and candid approach to topics long discussed on-screen, and Talbot's stylistic approach to the subject matter helps it stand out from its peers. It's brilliant, and another slam-dunk for production studio A24.
Written by James Green