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Last Black Man in San Francisco, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Beautiful film about a beautiful city that sometimes doesn't love you back."
5 stars

"The Last Black Man in San Francisco" may be the year's best tale of unrequited love; it's certainly the one where the camera most clearly adores its subjects. That the object of that adoration is a house or a city hardly matters.

The man in love is Jimmie Fails; the building is a beautiful house on Fillmore, which Jimmie will say with no small amount of pride was built by his grandfather in 1946. He hasn't lived there since he was a small child, though; his father lost it and his family fell apart. Now, he and his best friend Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors) paint and tend to it, much to the consternation of the couple that actually owns it. When that couple is forced to vacate, Jimmie and Mont start squatting, returning the old furnishings and setting to work on restoration.

A Segway tour early on explains that this neighborhood used to be "the Harlem of the West", and before that was mostly Japanese; it's mostly older white folks now. San Francisco has lately become infamous for pushing its long-time less-than-wealth residents out, and that's a constant undercurrent of this film, both overtly and in how it emphasizes how much effort Jimmie and Mont have to make in order to get to not just the house but to their service jobs. The people who keep the city running and clearly love it more than the tourists who gawk (most notably in a sequence where folks in a cable-car-inspired tour bus gawk at an eccentric Jimmie is chatting with), but can't be part of it.

It's not just about gentrification, though; the house is home and a place to belong, and Jimmie's guerrilla paint touch-ups and breaking in are his attempts to return things to the way that they should be. Jimmie's family is not gone but it is scattered, and has often not been there to support him, while the artistically-minded Mont feels like he has to practice using profanity in the mirror in order to communicate with his neighbors. The house is a comfortable, idealized anachronism for people who feel out of time or out of place as well as a family to return to, and the fact that it is the latter makes Jimmie remain sympathetic even as the audience is shaking their heads, knowing he must see how this can't last. A quixotic quest for family is forgivable.

Fails (also a co-writer playing a fictionalized take on himself) and Jonathan Majors make an intriguing pair, muted at times and eccentric but not awkward. There's a quiet chemistry between the pair that's all the more impressive for how fragile they seem at times, with Fails's seeming calm a nifty complement to the nervous energy Majors gives Mont. They're surrounded by a terrific group of supporting actors, most notably Danny Glover as Mont's blind grandfather, essaying a sort of loneliness that may be in the future for the others. Rob Morgan is strong as Jimmie's father, as is Tichina Arnold as his aunt.

The biggest star of the show is the city, though, with director Joe Talbot and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra have one of the country's most beautiful cities to shoot in, and they take full advantage, with slow-motion and unusual angles to emphasize the unique architecture. The inside of the house leads to beautiful compositions, and there's occasionally something otherworldly on occasion, from the opening scenes to the way cuts between high and low tide throw time out of joint. They're also unafraid to show how the city can be kind of a mess - the very rich and the very poor are often intertwined there - making for striking contrasts.

It's a beautiful film about a beautiful city, a doomed romance that you nevertheless root for because it's the sort of love that makes a person feel uplifted even when it can't last, with another layer or two underneath that. It can be a little stretched-out at times, but by the end, there's not much negative feeling to be had about having lingered in this place.

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originally posted: 07/10/19 15:00:19
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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  07-Jun-2019 (R)
  DVD: 27-Aug-2019


  DVD: 27-Aug-2019

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