2 1/2 out of 4 stars
Written by co-producer/director Joe Talbot and Rob Richert and based on an original story by Talbot and leading man Jimmie Fails (all of them first-time filmmakers), “The Last Man in San Francisco” is a primal scream piece of social awareness commentary packaged in the slick skin of a low-fidelity but lustrous art house flick.
(Both Talbot and Fails introduced the film to the Monday evening press screening in Atlanta and later participated in a discussion with WABE 90.1 FM “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes.)
Take the pointed class inequity slings and arrows of Spike Lee and combine them with the ethereal and spare dreamscapes of Terrence Malick, and “Last Black Man” is the result. If you think those conflicting styles seem incompatible, you’re right. If not for the mesmerizing performances of Fails and Jonathan Majors, “Last Black Man” would be little more than a heartfelt misfire; a jagged tone poem crumpling under the weight of its own herculean expectations.
Opening and closing with men in hazmat suits collecting what is likely human fecal matter and discarded drug paraphernalia, this is not the kind of movie the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce wants you to see. Even with suicide, genocide, serial killers, hair-trigger cops and hate crimes, “Vertigo,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978), “Zodiac,” “Dirty Harry” and “Milk” all made the City by the Bay seem a lot more upscale and picturesque – which might be the filmmakers’ ultimate point.
Like every major (and minor, actually) metropolitan area, San Francisco engages in a totally legal (if not entirely ethical) practice often labeled “gentrification.” This entails taking rundown, less-valuable or behind-in-mortgage real estate, slapping on some spit and polish and doubling or tripling the value — often in mere months. Considering San Francisco has some of the priciest real estate in not just the U.S. but the world, gentrification to some degree there will probably never stop.
Based in part on a true story, Fails plays a man with his same first and last off-screen name, a guy obsessed with the house he grew up in, owned first by his grandfather but lost in the ’90s by his father (Rob Morgan) and maybe also his mother (Tichina Arnold). Jimmie believes with every fiber of his being that this house in the tony Fillmore district is his birthright, despite that fact he has no job to pay for the probable $8 million mortgage.
With his budding playwright and artist friend Monty (Majors) in tow (albeit while politely kicking and screaming), Jimmie shows up at the house about once a week to make improvements, which is mostly painting the red and gold outdoor trim (Go Niners!). Never mind there are people now living there who are none too happy with Jimmie’s creepy/stalking behavior, he somehow thinks that his continued (nonviolent but invasive) attention to their home is perfectly fine. But that isn’t nearly the worst of it.
With a running time of just over two hours, “Last Black Man” feels like well over three, mostly because each and every scene goes on for — well, about 30% longer than it should. Points are introduced and repeatedly driven home again and again for no reason. One example features five (perhaps) gang members acting as a Greek chorus which, despite the dropping of far too many gratuitous F- and N-bombs, adds considerable depth and texture to the story with dialogue that could easily double as lyrics from a long-lost P.M. Dawn album (we’ll take a brief time out here while some of you Google P.M. Dawn). It is during one of their more heated get-togethers that Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece “Blue” plays in the foreground.
Given the initial premise and continuing promise of better things to come, we the audience wait for a final, transcendent payoff, which never quite arrives. Instead of an enlightening closing, we get a riveting mini acting clinic from Majors (“Hostiles,” “Out of the Blue,” “White Boy Rick”) that proves what we’ve been suspecting since the start of the movie — he’s the true star of the show.
For those of us who’ve lived through nasty, drawn-out and contentious settlements of estates or situations of highly misplaced senses of lineage/heritage entitlement, “Last Black Man” might strike too close to the bone. For all others, it should be taken as a hearty warning.
A house is only a home when it is occupied by people. This could be a family of blood or non-related persons perhaps with an accompanying animal or two, but make no mistake, a structure without residents and connective heart, blood and soul is just a building, nothing more.