Movie Review: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

4 stars out of 5

We hope for a different kind of movie but usually get same-y ones, yet every now and again something fresh comes along. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is such a film and it made me smile. Not that they reinvented the form or anything; I was frequently reminded of the magical realism of Michel Gondry (and that’s a very good thing). The sweet rapport between stars Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors made me think of the Lucas Brothers but then I accused myself of thinking that just because they’re black so I didn’t give it any further thought. OK I’ll think about it for just one more minute: Like the Lucases, Fails and Majors’ characters exist outside standard African-American male stereotypes, in a post-race mellow hipster world. And yet race is a key component in this story, don’t kid yourself.

Jimmie Fails plays Jimmie Fails and he also gets a story credit so I guess we can assume this is somewhat based on a true thing. Majors plays his BFF Montgomery. Jimmie is obsessed with reclaiming an old house in San Francisco that his grandfather built, imprinted on Jimmie’s childhood memories. Montgomery tags along as Jimmie visits and quietly paints the windowsills, etc., much to the chagrin of the white greying public-radio couple that owns the house, well at least to the chagrin of the wife, you’ve met couples like that, haven’t you. As he waits and plots to take over the house, Jimmie stays with Montgomery and his kind blind dad Danny Glover.

So, obviously we’re dealing with gentrification, but the script goes much deeper than that, encompassing Japanese internment, what it means to be a black man in the urban USA, unreliable memories, overcoming family history, and most importantly the power of friendship. Do I need to say it’s also a love letter to San Francisco? It’s also a love letter to San Francisco.

The mom from Everybody Hates Chris shows up, as do Mike Epps, Thora Birch, Finn Wittrock, and a bit of stunt casting for a Segway-riding tour guide that made me happy anyway.

Kudos to rookie director (and cowriter) Joe Talbot on making a beautiful-looking film that holds together plot-wise despite being 2 hours long, with laughs, kindness, and tears. I’d give him grief for the too-on-point character name “Jimmie Fails” but, hey, real guy.

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