In 2019, the Golden State Warriors opened a new stadium. The Chase Center would be a state-of-the-art celebration of a team that revolutionized basketball. It would also signal the death of a fanbase. Despite decades of playing in Oakland, the Warriors and owner Joe Lacob moved the team to San Francisco. After all, tech moguls and angel investors did not want to go to Oakland anymore. The city could not gentrify quickly enough, and San Fransisco tapped into a new crowd. Despite the culture that had built the team up, Oakland was not white enough to keep its team.
The Bay area has long been changing, despite the cultural backlash that’s begun to unfold. San Francisco’s been gentrified, with many African-American and Black families moving across the bay as they were priced out of their own neighborhoods. Actor Jimmie Fails and director Joe Talbot wrote 2019 Indie darling The Last Black Man in San Francisco because of the home Fails’ family actually lost. Giving Fails a starring showcase, Talbot creates a dreamlike world that showcases the ways in which culture, individuality, and creativity can be destroyed as we gentrify areas. Ironically enough, this action of gentrification destroys the very heartbeat of unique communities that draw invading neighbors to the area in the first place.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco follows Jimmie (Fails) as he wanders the San Francisco area with his friend Mont (Jonathan Majors). The two young men live with Mont’s grandfather (Danny Glover) and run into trouble with the local community. One day they pass the childhood home where Jimmie grew up, a house built by his grandfather. Jimmie continues to fix up the house despite the new owner’s objections and pleas for him to stop. However, when the family disappears from the house, Jimmie and Mont move-in. In the months that follow, the men try to keep their newfound dream despite pressure from those around them to abandon the house.
For Fails, his autobiographical performance should propel him to stardom. The emotionally raw style of his role, as well as his vulnerability on display, makes him a standout. He goes big and creates excitement when needed, channeling the talents of a carnival barker. Fails shines brightest when he takes a backseat to his fellow performers, playing off their strengths to elevate scenes. His use of negative space and subtle moments showcases his true range. Screen presence like this is rare to come by. This breakthrough role should put Fails on your map as a potential star in the making.
Fails’ performance is helped by the tremendous Majors. The young actor has shown up in several films in recent years, but this gives him the most material to work from. Majors gets the showier of the two roles, thanks to Mort’s one-man show. While he plays up the artsy side of the character, his journey draws you into the fold. He’s a believer and his undying hope makes him easy to latch onto. As a perfect audience surrogate, Majors creates empathy for our characters. Yet at the same time, his choices create the most devasting outbursts of emotion on screen.
Talbot will surely come away from the project with significant heat. The director creates a dreamlike atmosphere from the opening frames of the film. Every image feels poignant and full of symbolism, yet a straight forward narrative exists. There are almost no fatty parts of the film and Talbot creates real tension. While The Last Black Man From San Francisco feels like the perfect Sundance film, the images he creates leaves you with the impression you’re watching a future master at work.
Talbot gives Fails and Majors room to differentiate themselves from the talented cast, and there’s no doubt they’re the stars. However, the ensemble features a half-dozen incredible performances. Glover’s brilliant in the role, physically and vocally transforming into the blind grandfather. His relationship with Majors becomes a centerpiece of the film, and he sells the chemistry and care you’d expect. The same can be said for Rob Morgan, who once again functions as a scene-stealer in a larger story. Morgan’s quickly become one of the great character actors on film, and despite limited screentime, he effectively cuts his fellow characters to their core. The pessimistic vision he has for the character helps sell Fails as the dreamer we need.
There may not be an indie darling quite like The Last Black Man in San Francisco in 2019, and that’s because few films will feel as singular in their vision. Thanks to Fails and Talbot, this movie roars to life as a modern-day fairytale. Their eye for storytelling makes them an exciting duo to keep an eye on, and with any luck, we’ve seen the birth of another brilliant filmmaking team. Even if this is the only time they collaborate, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is the most exciting debut of the year.