Review: When You Love A City That Doesn’t Love You Back, ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ Answers
“You’re still here in this crazy fucking city?”
You’ve heard the stories. The rising cost of living. The tech giant takeovers. The increased poverty rates. It’s so easy to think of San Francisco as a headline that we often disassociate from the individual level — the ones living there and facing the effects of it all. Though not always in its current state, San Francisco is a city steeped in history. Haight-Ashbury and counterculture. Alcatraz and infamous criminals. The citywide 1906 and 1989 earthquakes. Japantown and the internment of residents during WWII. The Castro and Gay Liberation.
The city is important for so many reasons, and it’s the people living there— a diverse and far reaching population where ideas and cultures merged into one city — that helped give rise to it. Faced with problems of the 21st century, San Francisco enters a new chapter in its collective history where the relics, antiques, and monuments of the past are pushed out. A darker, more existential chapter where economic gentrification threatens the very essence of the city. Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco (TLBMiSF) takes aim at this moment in history, seeking to depict one man’s realization that the city he once loved has changed before his very eyes, and coming to terms with the fact that it may not love him back.
Through and through, TLBMiSF is a city film. A film where the images on screen bleed with overwhelming affection for its subjects and a yearning to share it with anyone willing to watch. But this isn’t in celebration, no, but rather in mourning. A reflection on a city that has captured the hearts of director Joe Talbot and subject Jimmie Fails, and asks whether or not they have a place in it moving forward. So deeply melancholic but simultaneously impassioned is this idea, but around it, Talbot constructs one of the year’s most important films, carrying with it a pointed message about the social conditions faced in one of America’s greatest cities.
A single Victorian house in the Fillmore District is the focus of our film. Built in the 1940s by his grandfather, the structure is the last remaining remnant of Jimmie Fails’ family legacy after being forced out as a young child by economic conditions. When the house’s current family is forced out for similar reasons, Jimmie and his friend Mont see an opportunity to claim it one last time before it gets sold off.
The film is based on the actual Jimmie Fails who just so happens to be portraying himself in the film. Life long friends, Talbot depicts Jimmie’s story as a visual testimony —albeit embellished for cinematic effect— of his personal sentiments regarding the shifting landscape of the city. This isn’t the San Francisco he grew up in, and throughout the film you get a sense of longing nostalgia, to keep things as they were when Jimmie was growing up. Living in the past becomes Jimmie’s way of covering up the hardships brought about by the ever changing social conditions of his present.
Tech companies coming in and hosting cable car craft beer mixers are just one of the many changes rendered by these conditions, but more importantly, it’s the effects of gentrification that are brought up in the film that take center stage. With more and more tech workers coming to the city, it becomes more and more apparent that the underclass, consisting of mostly minority populations, are being pushed out. As the title suggests, the film grapples with what it means to be in that group, specifically for African Americans.
A city film at heart, TLBMiSF is about San Francisco at a particular point in time. Like Lost in Translation, Taxi Driver, or any Michael Mann film set in L.A., you can not remove personal attributes from the place our characters inhabit. San Francisco is a character in the same way as Jimmie or Mont, and it has a narrative and thematic function all the same. The friction between loving the city and not having that city reciprocate is the underlying tension driving the film, and represents the social plight of gentrification taking place — an unwavering social issue that continues to be carried out no matter how hard Jimmie resists it.
This love for the city is shown through its visuals, and it is through the camera that we see the city as Talbot does. Not a film this year has been as pronounced as TLBMiSF in making the camera an extension of the director's eye. We see picturesque vistas of San Francisco that show not only its physical beauty, but also its character, going beyond typical establishing shots and exuding an intangible je ne sais quoi that directly ties to the film’s themes.
Due in part to this loving affection, the film climbs near the top of best looking films this year. You can feel Talbot’s passion in every frame and the considerations made to each shot. It’s readily apparent that he leaves everything out on the field in this debut, going for overt stylings that occasionally conflict, but nevertheless give Talbot the makings of his own calling card. Time will tell with subsequent works how his style refines or evolves, but for a first outing, it’s a 110% effort.
Lastly I want to talk about the score. Imagine being Joe Talbot and having Emile Mosseri walk into your office, drop this score on your desk, and then listening to it for the first time knowing this is what you’d use in your film. I’d imagine it being a transcendental experience not unlike hearing the voice of god. If not heard in the trailer, the film itself is an auditory bastion that communicates the emotional bond between city and soul. Standing well above the orchestral goop and traditional scheme heard in so many films, the score is so creatively unique that if you heard it months or years from now, you would say, “That’s from The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” It’s melancholic, it’s uplifting, and most of all tender, utilizing brass instruments as the primary driver to its music but also containing support from an angelic choir, symphonic strings, and a somber piano. In tandem with the content on the screen, it’s an affecting score that will evoke an emotional response from even from the coldest — or for the San Franciscans, foggiest — hearts.
The past and present collide in Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco. In a beautifully shot and composed package, Talbot is able to work through personal feelings about his own city and the complicated relationship he has with it. At one point in the film, Fails proclaims, “You’re not allowed to hate [San Francisco] unless you love it,” and there is no better succinct encapsulation about what this film is about. The story of Jimmy Fails will pull on your heart strings and, if like me, have you on the verge of tears throughout the entirety of the film as you reach the inevitable conclusion to the film’s ultimate question: what happens when you love a city that doesn’t love you back?
For those interested, Joe Talbot is also a frequenter of Noir City (look out for his noir reference in TLBMiSF). Here’s a feature of the traveling festival that he shot a few years prior to this film.
The music in TLBMiSF is a major standout. I found this interview from Pitchfork specifically on the music to be wonderfully insightful.
Bay Area local Sway Calloway’s interview with Talbot and Fails gives some great context into the film’s production and the history between the two. Worth listing to if you have the time.