Until you open your heart to “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” it’s hard to get your mind around this piercingly beautiful debut feature by Joe Talbot. So many themes flowing through it, so many hypnotic visions of the City by the Bay as it’s seldom seen. There’s no plot to speak of, but none is needed. The story concerns the stories we need to tell ourselves, and the feelings come through strong and clear. What the hero longs for most strongly is a place he can call home.
His name is Jimmie Fails; that’s also the name of the extraordinary young actor who plays him, a friend of the director ever since they were kids growing up in San Francisco more than a decade ago. The film is hybrid in form and surreal in style, a free-floating fiction based on Fails’s life.
When we first meet Jimmie he is skateboarding around town with his friend Montgomery, an aspiring playwright. (That’s another superb performance, by Jonathan Majors.) The two men are poor in a city that favors the rich as never before. It’s a central theme in the film, which really is about San Francisco and, by extension, other American cities whose diversity and vitality are being choked by a death grip of wealth.
Jimmie cherishes a house that was once his home, a pretty Victorian situated literally in the Fillmore District and emotionally on the border between dreams and delusions. Jimmie’s dream is to reclaim it, since, according to family legend, his grandfather built it. His primary delusion is that his family owned it, when in fact he and his father were squatters during most of his childhood. Meanwhile Jimmie paints the house when the owners aren’t there, a guerrilla beautifier on the loose.
The film won a best director award at Sundance earlier this year, and it’s marvelous in myriad ways. It glides from moment to moment with cumulative power and singular grace. A street kid dies a violent death and is mourned. A street preacher hurls angry exhortations but his anger finds no audience. The movie’s default mood is rue, at least until Montgomery, wearing a two-sided costume, puts on an explosive one-man play in which he embodies reason and rage.
Montgomery’s play is too small a vessel for his purpose, just as Joe Talbot’s movie strains to contain its contents. But the too-muchness mirrors the state of the wonderful, maddening city. “You don’t get to hate San Francisco,” Jimmie tells two passengers on a bus, rootless millennial women who deplore the cost of living and want to move elsewhere. “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” I had nothing but the fondest feelings for this cross between a drama and a documentary. Call it a love-love relationship.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.