“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

LOUISA:  2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Indie festival circuit darling “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is one of the most pretentious films I have ever seen. Here is a film that’s so manipulative and so full of itself that its powerful message is lost among the chaos. It’s like Wes Anderson directed a version of “Blindspotting” that is far less insightful and reeks of exceptional self-importance. I wanted to like this visually beautiful movie, but it’s just too abstract and pompous to be anything but a complete turn-off. This is an exasperating way to spend two hours of your life.

Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) dreams of reclaiming the elegant Victorian home his grandfather built in 1946 in the heart of San Francisco. Joined on his quest by his quiet and thoughtful best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), Jimmie searches for his sense of place in a rapidly changing city that has left them behind. The film is a story of friendship and local adventure of two young men trying their best to survive and fit in among a landscape that they no longer recognize as their own.

There isn’t much to the screenplay, as writer / director Joe Talbot puts all his talents into capturing the mood, beauty, and essence of one of the most famous cities on Earth. The film has shot after shot of beautifully framed city landscapes, but it’s not all that difficult to make San Francisco look beautiful. Instead of concentrating on a solid story or an eye-opening racial viewpoint on the gentrification of the West Coast city, Talbot opts for gimmicky visual metaphors that figuratively beat me over the head so much that I had a headache by the end.

The finished product is bold for sure, but it’s mostly a hollow composition of random shots of homeless singers, obnoxious tourists, street preachers, and a random nude hippie at a bus stop that feel staged solely for the sake of being quirky. It’s as if the script took a back seat to the visuals because I’m an auteur, dammit! To hell with a solid story!

There’s a unique voice in here somewhere, but it’s trapped in the same old “love letter to a city,” blah blah blah, that we’ve seen a zillion times before. The talent of the two leads is undeniable, however, and their performances are terrific. I was disappointed that the more compelling elements of the story weren’t explored on a deeper level. The idea of persona versus reality, or the essence of feeling like an outsider in a place that’s always been your home are serious issues that I feel could’ve made more of a social impact with a better script. It’s a shame that near-iconic moments of brilliance are lost in the noise, including Jimmie’s awkward reunion with his mother on a public bus or a scene where he tries to apply for a multi-million dollar home loan from a stuffy city banker.

Just when the film starts to come full circle, the hollowness rears its head. Just how pretentious is it, you ask? It’s extreme. From the overuse of slow motion to the tiny digs at the modern political climate in San Francisco (a smarmy real estate agent has the last name Newsom), to the carefully orchestrated position of the actors to the pompous idea of using a homeless man singing opera as a soundtrack, the film is trying so hard to be deep and meaningful it loses all meaning and impact in storytelling.

It’s disappointing because the film rambles on and on, and feels like it ends five times before the final credits eventually roll. I do believe Talbot has a strong future in filmmaking, but I hope he relaxes and simply tries to tell his story with his next project instead of getting bogged down in symbolism.

15 comments

  1. I totally agree. My husband and I are black and wanted to support a black filmmaker. This film is so highly rated, I thought I’d give it a shot, even though I’d never heard of it. But I was so disappointed. It’s too glum and artistic for its own good. There was no resolution for the characters. There was hardly a plot. The only good thing about it was the acting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for commenting. The talent behind this film is astounding, and every single person involved will likely have a long career in filmmaking — I just wish this didn’t ramble so much and had a clearer, smaller focus. Big ideas are there, but just poorly executed in terms of storytelling.

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    2. If you haven’t seen BLINDSPOTTING, check that out. It was my very favorite movie of last year, and I think it does a much better job tackling the ideas of gentrification in the Bay area.

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  2. The actors give strong performances and several scenes (along with the two you mentioned) are noteworthy.

    I just wanted the storyline to be developed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I thought this film was great. It’s funny you mentioned Blindspotting, which I thought was wildly pretentious, overacted and at points silly. I’ll admit the final scene’s symbolism was a bit over the top, but overall I found this love letter to San Francisco really moving.

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  4. Films like this do not come around every day, if they did, the film industry wouldn’t have the same issue it’s had with diversity from the very beginning. If all you come away with from a film like the last black man in San Francisco is that you’ve seen films like Its kind a “zillion times before”, I think you should re-evaluate why you’re watching them in the first place.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I have seen films like this a zillion times before at film festivals around the globe. I had to go back and read my review and even after a rewatch of this film, my opening paragraph totally nails it:

      “Indie festival circuit darling “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is one of the most pretentious films I have ever seen. Here is a film that’s so manipulative and so full of itself that its powerful message is lost among the chaos. It’s like Wes Anderson directed a version of “Blindspotting” that is far less insightful and reeks of exceptional self-importance. I wanted to like this visually beautiful movie, but it’s just too abstract and pompous to be anything but a complete turn-off. This is an exasperating way to spend two hours of your life.”

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    2. I absolutely support minority films and filmmakers, it’s just such a letdown that the movie’s important message is lost among all the “trying to be so artsy” stuff. It’s a trap many indie filmmakers fall into, and it’s a shame it happened here.

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  5. I just randomly found this site after watching this film and this review completely misses the mark. There is absolutely no sympathy here for the messages that are being stated allegorically and, frankly, I think this review exposes a lack of understanding of the lived experiences of the subjects of the film. The utterly misguided and dismissive use of the word “pretentious” to describe this film is a really sad self-indictment. Your critique of the “homeless man singing opera” being pompous or used as a prop is just so wrong – it’s a freaking symbol of the unnoticed gifts of San Francisco’s displaced and discarded black population. This is just one of many beautifully filmed, and superbly acted, vignettes of a very ambitious and nuanced film. I know people prefer to have plots spoon-fed to them without being asked to do any work themselves but, for those who bother to do so, this film is powerful and affecting.

    BTW, “I have seen films like this a zillion times before at film festivals around the globe,” sounds, well, a little pretentious.

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    1. Very interesting take, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. I cannot disagree with much of what you said here, but these types of overwrought “film festival bait” films are super annoying, especially after having seen dozens of them. And this movie ticked every box, at least for me.

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  6. Maybe your issue is with A24? I find your review to be quite irresponsible. Have you been to SF? The homeless culture in SF is an integral part of the culture of SF, and I think the film does an authentic job in showcasing the wild characters in SF. If you’ve walked through the tenderloin or soma you will definitely see that. The nude guy is something you also see, especially in the Castro where that scene was shot. All of this speaks to the larger issue with the displacement happening in San Francisco. The snarky real estate guy represents the diabolical nature of agents and landlords in SF. Sounds to me like you got wrapped up in the strong visuals of the film and immediately dismissed this as a pompous film. Please do your research!

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    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I actually spend lots of time in San Francisco, and have for a good portion of the last decade. Understanding the plight of the city doesn’t make this movie any less irritating, however. I actually love A24 and indie films, and this is one of the most pretentious, boring, pompous, and self-indulgent movies I have ever seen. Symbolism is wonderful when done well, but audiences aren’t stupid — we don’t need to be beaten over the head with it. So glad this film resonated with you, but it certainly didn’t with me.

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