Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Fog: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

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

Director Joe Talbot’s feature film debut, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, would appear, from all the press and rapturous reviews, to have captured the San Francisco zeitgeist, portraying the city’s uneasiness with its supposed trajectory, in which gentrification and homelessness are erasing a gloriously funky history and ushering in a sleek, soulless, Tech-driven dystopia. Talbot, a native of San Francisco (his father is David Talbot, a founder of and author of the well-regarded SF history Season of the Witch), co-wrote the script (with Joe Richert, also a first-timer) based on stories and biographical details from the movie’s co-lead actor, Jimmie Fails, playing a character named Jimmie Fails. (Fails also gets a story credit.) The film definitely has an elegiac feel and a mythopoetic tone, along with some surrealistic touches: the opening sequence follows a young black girl skipping by Haz-Mat-suited workers until she reaches a street preacher on a literal soap box holding forth loudly to an audience of zero. But rather than a transcendent experience, what I encountered was an underpopulated, amateurish effort with glacial pacing, no real narrative drive, and characters that are merely a collection of odd, disjointed gestures, not living, breathing people.

The character Jimmie Fails’ big dream is to regain ownership of the Victorian wonder in the Western Addition neighborhood that he briefly lived in as a kid, designed by his grandfather in the ‘40s. (How the house can be Victorian when it was built in 1942 becomes a major plot point.) Fails currently crashes on the floor of his friend Monty’s bedroom, a repurposed garage in Monty’s grandfather’s house. (Jonathan Majors is Monty while an underused Danny Glover is his grandfather.) This is in Hunters Point, a long-marginalized SF neighborhood that is still dealing with the toxic and nuclear waste aftermath of its defunct shipyard, among other challenges: thus the Haz-Mat suits. Monty is an aspiring playwright who spends more time drawing sketches of people than he does writing. He doesn’t speak much and seems to have a loose grip on reality, interrupting the group of young black men who hang out on the front sidewalk and directing them, as if it were a play rehearsal. Among the group, Monty seems to regard Kofi (Jamal Trulove) as some sort of muse. Trulove is an SF-based musician whose own story is far more dramatic than anything in the movie – he was falsely imprisoned for eight years and recently won a multi-million-dollar judgement against the city.

Jimmie’s sense of reality is also questionable. He lovingly tends the Western Addition house, touching up the paint on the trim and other tasks of upkeep, much to the irritation of the current (white) owners of the house, who chase him off each time they discover him. When those occupants move out due to some sort of estate dispute, Fails sees his chance and moves in as a squatter, bringing Monty with him. They change the locks, move in the furnishings that an aunt has kept in storage for Jimmie and his father ever since they were evicted, and attempt to claim the house as their own. They make a mistake by alerting a local realtor (Finn Wittrock) to the vacancy. (The realtor’s name, Clayton Newsom, and Wittrock’s slicked-back hair make the connection to former mayor and current state governor Gavin Newsom unmistakable.)

After Kofi is shot and killed (and that’s all the detail we get), Monty finishes his script – about Kofi, unsurprisingly entitled The Last Black Man in San Francisco – and as their residency in the house becomes untenable, the two decide to stage Monty’s play in the Victorian’s attic. The production comes together suspiciously easily, and to a full house that contains all the African American characters we’ve seen and a bunch of white people we’ve never seen, Monty bizarrely re-enacts a scene between Kofi and one of the other Hunters Point sidewalk denizens (who’s in attendance), playing both parts, reciting verbatim uncompelling dialogue we’ve already heard. Then he accosts his audience, daring them to acknowledge their grief over Kofi’s death and getting the crowd to agree that “people aren’t one thing.” (God only knows what the white members of Monty’s audience, strangers to all of this, must be thinking.) Monty’s plea for complexity would be more convincing if Talbot had made Kofi an actual person. As it is, all we’ve seen of him is that he was nice to Monty and Jimmie when they invited him to visit the house, and then a few days later, he shouted insults at Monty when he was back with his friends. (That’s two things, so I guess, technically, Monty’s right.)

Later, after Jimmie is irrevocably forced from the house, he busts up his skateboard, his main mode of transit, looks accusingly at the camera – we all stand guilty in his eyes – and just before he disappears forever from the city and the movie, tells a pair of white-girl complainers on the bus (one of whom is Thora Birch), “You don’t get to hate San Francisco unless you love San Francisco.” The night I saw it, someone actually applauded this pseudo-profundity.

Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors and Danny Glover in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

For a film that purports to be about San Francisco, there’s no genuine feeling of the city or of any of its neighborhoods; there’s no real sense of what life is currently like here. Sure, you see different shots of the city, such as a brief scene in the Castro district where Jimmie is waiting at a bus stop, when one of the area’s infamous naked guys sits down next to him, only to be yelled at by a bunch of Tech bros riding a cable car cum party bus. We’re obviously supposed to feel that Jimmie has more of a kinship with the naked guy than the Tech bros, but the whole scene is so perfunctory, so cheap, that it’s impossible to feel kinship with anyone.

Talbot’s Hunters Point seems to house eight to ten black people, and Talbot films it in two angles, looking straight on to Monty’s grandfather’s house (a house with no apparent neighbors), and then straight out onto the Bay. The Western Addition is populated by about four white people, until the play performance, when the number swells to 15 or so. All is bathed in a golden glow (courtesy of cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra) that looks nothing like actual San Francisco daylight. Given how slowly the film moves, it feels more like everything is frozen in amber. Including the viewer.

The secondary characters’ dialogue appears to be improvised, as in the scenes with Kofi and his gang, or when Mike Epps appears as a friend who’s somehow appropriated the car that Jimmie and his father used to own, but there’s no wit or snap to the lines. Speaking of Jimmie’s father, Epps says, “He’s home alone, he ain’t at home, but he’s alone. He’s alone with no home. I’m not alone. People like me. I’m liked.” What does this have to do with anything? (Yes, I understand that isolation and loneliness are Talbot’s grand themes. My question stands.) I’m not a fan of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but there’s no denying that he was able to evoke a whole neighborhood with a few quick lines that contained warmth and humor. Jimmie and Monty don’t seem to belong to anything, except each other. They have no romantic life, they’re curiously passive and unchanging, like motorized toys that run into a wall over and over again until they bust a spring. We see brief glimpses of Monty working in an Asian fish market or of Jimmie interacting with a patient at nursing home where I guess he works, but these details don’t add anything to the depiction of the two men. The scenes seemed tossed in, like Talbot is completing a script-writing lesson entitled “Creating Three-Dimensional Characters.”

Fails and Majors both have great faces, and they’re costumed emblematically, Jimmie in a bright red Pendleton shirt (“Why you dressed like a white boy?,” Jimmie’s father asks) and Monty in a natty tailored jacket. (Amanda Ramirez designed the wardrobe.) But emblems don’t make for great characters, especially when it’s not at all clear what the men are emblems of. Men who feel they shouldn’t have to suffer because their parents made bad financial decisions? Crummy playwrights? The film’s title clearly refers to Jimmie (when it doesn’t refer to Kofi), but why? Yes, it’s a symbolic title, and yes, we are all The Last Black Man in San Francisco, except of course, we aren’t. And neither is Jimmie.

It doesn’t help that Fails and Majors aren’t actors (although Majors is slightly better than Fails). Talbot most likely directed them to read their lines slowly and to take long pauses, but when they do have the occasional outburst of anger (Jimmie) or weirdness (Monty), it rings false, just so much playacting.

Talbot also provides uncomfortable close-ups whose raison d’ ĂȘtre appears to be a lack of budget for extras. The most egregious example is when Jimmie unexpectedly encounters his estranged mother (played without credit by Fails’ actual mother) on a bus. The camera is claustrophobically close to her, forcing our attention on individual features rather than the whole person.

Talbot is clearly grasping for greatness, but his work is as misshapen as the mutated fish that jumps in Monty’s boat. (Is it Monty’s boat? There’s a boat, and sometimes Monty’s in it: that’s all I know for sure.) Narrative opacity is being read as complexity by the movie’s fans, and the lumbering pace as depth. But the film is more like an ambitious film-school student’s thesis project, where the inexperienced director took short cuts and made compromises for monetary rather than artistic reasons. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is as false as its title.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

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