In the opening, we see a gorgeous profile shot of tiny, delicate African
American girl with a lollipop peering at a white man in a HAZMAT suit who is
cleaning up harmful chemicals. In the background, a preacher is holding a sign
protesting the toxins that corporations are releasing in his neighborhood. The
girl is summoned away by parents and the camera pans with her, and this leaves
the viewer asking why the man is protected while the girl is not and why in our
society are some lives are more important than others are.
Last Black Man in San Francisco is an extraordinarily gorgeous and socially
conscious urban drama about race, gentrification, and the importance of dreams.
The film was a huge hit at the Sundance Film Festival where it won Best Director
and a Special Jury prize for Best Creative Collaboration. It is still early, but
this is by far the most memorable American Indy film I have seen so far this
This is the debut film of Joe Talbot and his use of comic asides and quirky
street city people character interaction reminds me of Spike Lee’s Do the Right
Thing, but this film is much more confident and controlled (although this film
is also slightly less ambitious and ground breaking).
The film has a wonderful score by Emile Mosseri which somehow seems to capture
the tone of melancholy longing of the main character, and the film also has a
modern version of the ancient Greek chorus of modern street kids commenting on
the action (The chorus feels much more organic and it works better than the one
in Chi-Raq). The film also features songs by Joni Mitchell and Scott McKenzie
(his hippy utopian song San Francisco serves as an ironic counterpart to what is
going on onscreen and it reminds us how reality does not measure up to the
The cast features talented newcomers Jimmy Fails (as Jimmy Fails), the
director’s real life friend Jonathan Majors, playing Mont, and an aspiring
writer/film maker who is probably modeled on the director. The cast also
features veterans such as Lethal Weapon’s Danny Glover (he was also in the
recent Dead Don’t Die), and the almost forgotten Thora Birch, who I do not think
I have seen in a major picture since 2001’s Ghost World.
The film’s most surprising and delightful cameo is the appearance of Jello
Biafra, the former lead singer of the notorious San Francisco punk band, the
Dead Kennedys (his voice is unmistakable). Biafra plays a vain and insensitive
tour guide who spouts off info to the tourists, which may be inaccurate.
Jimmy Fails (his name matches his personality) fears he will lose the chance to
buy the Victorian dream house that his grandfather supposedly built with his own
hands. Both he and his best friend are completely broke (they even share the
same skateboard), but Jimmy is determined to buy the house even though it is
Although the house temporarily has no legal occupant, the civic minded Jimmy
squats there with his friend, and he has devoted much time to restoring the
beauty of both the house and the whole community. It is a way to escape his
miserable dad who spends much of his time regretting what he did in the past and
lamenting how life did not work out for him. His dad (played by Danny Glover)
also resents his son because he dresses too much like a white person and spends
too much time skateboarding.
There is an important scene in which Jim’s writer friend, Mont, puts on an one
man show in which he plays a dual character (like the comic villain Two Face
each side is a physical manifestation of personality) who later splits into two
people corresponding to Jimmie and Mont (You can probably interpret it different
ways). The play berates Jimmy for the myths he believes in, but the film
ultimately suggests that fiction is ok as long as it is needed to give us the
strength to go on.
The film implies that some of the most evil invaders and villains are is the
white (at least in this case) real estate developers who do not care if they rip
apart a community or destroy dreams as long as they can make a few quick bucks.
I might be overanalyzing this but I found it interesting that in a time that our
presidential office is occupied by a former real estate developer, the biggest
villain in a movie is a selfish real estate developer.
Although Jimmy has the biggest single role in the film, its star is really the
underbelly of San Francisco. The film shows us glimpses into the lives of
everyday street preachers, the destitute, and skate boarders. One of the best
scenes shows a little speck of a skate border juxtaposed before a huge panoramic
scene of immense streets and buildings. The shot contrasting the miniscule boy
against the massive city is reminiscent of the work of Antonioni, and it is the
most thrilling and memorable shot in the film. This scene captures the fragility
and loneliness of human existence in a big city as well as any artwork I have
experienced including the classic Iggy Pop song, The Passenger.
Both the look of this humanistic film and its relatable characters elevate it
far above virtually all of the current franchise films. Try to see it at the big
screen theater because you will never be able to experience the full power and
majesty of the lovely long shots on a television or computer.