You can tell that The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the debut feature from director Joe Talbot, is something special within its first five minutes. It isn’t just the opening moments, in which a young African-American girl is seen staring up at something, which the next shot reveals to be a man in a hazmat suit, picking up debris — a weird, witty, wonderful one-two punch. A man stands on a milk crate in the middle of the street, raving about how the city is out to get them, and it needs to be reclaimed. His only audience is a part-time hospice nurse/full-time skaterat named Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and a would-be playwright named Montgomery (Jonathan Majors). Behind the street preacher, you can see the bay in the background, its shoreline dotted with guys in biohazard gear. After listening for a few minutes, Jimmie says, “Let’s skate.”
And then comes the scene that does it, with Montgomery riding on the back of his buddy’s board as the two of them whiz down streets and through neighborhoods. They pass black neighbors laughing and Asian shopkeepers standing in door frames, quizzical white folks holding lattes and curious tourists; in the Tenderloin, a crazed hippy-looking dude starts running beside them, asking if he can jump on as well, shedding his clothes without breaking his stride. Rows and rows of old Victorian houses pass them by, filmed from below and looking like medieval castles. Everything is happening in a dreamy sort of slo-mo. The orchestral music keeps building and building and building. The preacher’s voice keeps yelling over the soundtrack: “This is our home! This is our home!“
Funny, poignant, personal and a rage-filled valentine to a metropolis that’s seen its fair share of gentrification, Last Black Man shifts into narrative mode in due time after that. But it’s this city symphony that sets the lyrical, oft-kilter tone that characterizes the movie, and makes it feel like something completely unique. Loosely based on a real-life experience of Falls and the product of two childhood friends that, per Talbot’s prescreening intro, spun out of “long walks Jimmie and I would take together in Bernal Heights,” the film delivers a haunted house story without the supernatural horror element. And along with the ensemble drama The Farewell (more on that one later this week), this extraordinary ode to the displaced also delivers a major breakout hit for the festival’s opening weekend. It feels singular, righteous, heartfelt. It’s the type of film that reminds you why you go to Sundance in the first place.
Jimmie and Montgomery live with the latter’s grandfather (Danny Glover) in a cramped place in Hunter’s Point. But home, for Jimmie, is a house in the Fillmore District. Specifically, a stately place that his kin — a.k.a. “the first black man in San Francisco” according to local lore — built in 1946 in a neighborhood once known as “the Harlem of the West.” At least, that’s what he keeps telling himself — an obnoxious local historian says the architecture dates back a lot longer than that. (Memo to directors: If you ever have the chance to cast former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra as a segway-riding tour guide, do so immediately.) Jimmie isn’t hearing it. This is where he lived before his dad spiraled into self-destruction, before his mom took off, before the group homes. He still goes by and repaints the window panes, much to the agitation of the (white) folks currently living there.
Then, through a series of circumstances, the place becomes open when the owner passes away and the heirs argue over the estate. Jimmie and Montgomery begin squatting there; the former even gets their old furniture back from his aunt, who kept everything in storage. They begin fixing it up, even inviting one of the local tough guys who hangs out by Gramps’ place for “a schvitz” in the in-house steam room. Naturally, this makeshift utopia can’t last. It’s a question of when, as opposed to if, their residence comes to the end. What’s that saying about how you can never really go home again?
Talbot and Fails are SF natives, and along with the former’s co-writer Rob Reichert, they give you a City by the Bay dotted with gutterpunks and yuppies, casual nudists and angry bohos, picture-postcard views that belch up three-eyed fishes, a Greek chorus of shit-talkers and a tourist trolley blasting a house-music version of “Someone to Love.” They understand how that’s part of any major metropolitan history; it’s repeatedly mentioned that the largely black Fillmore that Jimmie romanticizes was once the province of Japanese immigrants until WWII relocated them to internment camps. They’re angry about what’s happened to their home town, which has seen demographic turnovers go from every-other-generation to exponentially speedy in the 21st century.
But it’s an anger fueled by affection, which gets underlined in a scene involving two cynical newbies “who came here for, like, Janis and the Airplane” and Jimmie on a bus. “You can’t hate this city unless you love it,” he says, a statement that resonates with anybody who can claim lifer status in a big city. (In a nutshell: San Francisco, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.) And it isn’t afraid to talk about the way race and relocation plays into any hotspot where the phrase “urban renewal” gets thrown around a lot by people with fat wallets. This is also vision of a place that’s seen its fair share of gold rushes and ghettoization, which leaves a psychic imprint for residents on the other side of the economic boom.
It all comes to a head when Montgomery finally stages his play in the attic of the house on the eve of an eviction, with hard truths getting thrown around and a sense of closure finally looking like it might one day be a possibility. No one cures social ills here, which doesn’t mean a personal victory doesn’t feel like a victory. Should that not be ambitious enough for you, The Last Black Man in San Francisco ends with a shot that somehow combines The Great Gatsby‘s famous final lines with the Golden Gate Bridge. It sticks the landing, in other words, which is not something you can say about a lot of the movies that have played at Sundance so far this year. But you really only need one great movie to make a film festival a success. Talbot, Fails and their collaborators have given the programmers, and us, an undeniable gem. It plays like a gauntlet that’s been thrown down. But it feels like a gift.