Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Photo by Peter Prato / A24.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is all surface

This well-intentioned film falls short of achieving its dual goals: to reflect American social ills and to be a nostalgic love letter to a city.

It’s a cliché to say that a city is the real protagonist of a film. When we say that, it usually means that the film couldn’t be set anywhere else, that the plot, characters and themes are bound to the setting in a kind of symbiotic relationship. Whether this kind of comment makes you cringe or reflect deeply, it is true that setting can feel irrelevant or imperative. Ideally the setting isn’t a character per se, but the manifestation of the filmmaker’s conscious choice.

In The Last Black Man in San Francisco, San Francisco is shown as beautiful, dirty, unforgiving and forgetful. You could say that the film is a love letter to the city, but its love is spread so thin that it forgets about its characters. On paper it reads as a gritty urban realism piece, not the romantic and often polemic film that it is. In that way, it’s an achievement based on its sheer ambition to stray from cinematic expectations. But using slow-motion, theatrical acting and intricate set pieces does not buy a film an all-inclusive pass to Depth and Insight™.

Directed and co-written by Joe Talbot (and lead actor Jimmie Fails — the story is autobiographical), The Last Black Man in San Francisco follows a young black man hellbent on reclaiming a Victorian mansion on the hill in the Fillmore district, built, we’re told, by his grandfather in the 1940s. The house has been taken over by a couple of white baby-boomers who neglect it, much to Jimmie and his friend Mont’s (Jonathan Majors) dismay. They sneak into the house when they’re out to work on it. They paint the window frames, trim the ives and water the plants. It’s a funny reversal of what we’ve been taught to expect when black men break into a white owner’s house. When the couple is forced to leave the house over a family quarrel, Jimmie and Mont move in, in the hopes of keeping it. Jimmie goes to the bank and asks for a loan. Seeing that he lives from paycheque to paycheque, a million-dollar loan is out of the question for them, despite his earnest promise to pay it back. He stays in the house with Mont, planning to claim squatter’s rights, but knowing full well that it’s only a matter of time before they’re kicked out.

Jimmie’s dedication to the house and his genuine concern for its preservation is touching. In a city where the black population has been cut by over 50 per cent since the ’70s, caring for a home is a way to counteract or at least manage the fear of being forgotten and erased without a trace. Indeed, the film makes it its mission to represent the displaced, the communities that have been gentrified out of the neighbourhoods that affluent yuppies never used to want to live in until the lure of culture and affordability became too strong. San Francisco as it is now is a city in flux. Characters lament the changes that gentrification brings, even the ones that are good simply because it reminds them of how undeserving they were to benefit from necessities like unpolluted water and grocery stores selling fresh produce.

But with the exception of some glimpses into the leads’ inner worlds and thoughts, none of the characters feel three-dimensional. Mont is an aspiring playwright at odds with mainstream black masculinity. He wears a full suit, works at a fish market and carries a notebook with him everywhere he goes, in which he doodles beautiful sketches of passersby and cityscapes. Jimmie is a laid-back romantic who yearns for a place to call home. But the writing, performances and mise en scène get in the way of the characters by either imposing stylistic choices or by simply being vague in their execution. Majors’ mannered performance makes him feel like a parody, and in scenes where the drama kicks in, he goes over the top so quickly that it’s hard to believe in him as anything but a hollow character.

It’s also odd that the film is based on Jimmie Fails’ family history and yet contains very little idiosyncratic detail — or any detail at all. Ambitious in its scope, the film deals with socio-political issues such as racism, homelessness, gun violence and gentrification, but all of these complex problems are watered-down and reduced to passing references and background action.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is swimming in good ideas and even better intentions, but sinks from its inability to commit to representing the details of its world. It’s an important story and one that needs to be told, but it bobs at the surface, like a raft far off in the distance, a symbol of help rather than a tool for survival. ■

The Last Black Man in San Francisco opens in theatres on Friday, July 12. Watch the trailer here: