Don’t call ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ a love letter

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To say that a movie is a “love letter” to the location in which it takes place is a phrase now securely enshrined in the pantheon of film criticism clichés, alongside the likes of buzzwords like “raw” and “riveting” to describe movies that put audiences “on the edge of their seats.” Critics have called Manhattan Woody Allen’s love letter to New York, Boyhood Richard Linklater’s love letter to Texas, La La Land Damien Chazelle’s love letter to L.A., and Creed Ryan Coogler’s love letter to Philadelphia. (It’s also a cliché I’m guilty of indulging in, in reference to Lady Bird.)

If your film has any affinity for its locale, there’s a good chance a critic will deem it a love letter. And like most clichés, there’s a sliver of truth to the phrase: Greta Gerwig herself said that’s how she viewed Lady Bird, and John Hughes has said the same of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for Chicago. Whether or not the phrase is overused in criticism, it remains true that when filmmakers step behind the camera, they use their platform to celebrate the places they love, as many great artists do.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco belongs to a related, yet distinct, breed of movies. The feature debut from writer-director Joe Talbot tells the story of Talbot’s childhood friend Jimmie Fails, who plays a dramatized version of himself as a man trying to regain control of the home his family built in the 1940s. They have since been priced out, and the ramifications of this displacement weigh heavily on Jimmie. He continues to care for the outside of the home, painting its windowsills and tending to its garden, much to the annoyance of the affluent white couple residing there. To Jimmie, the house represents the last sense of belonging he had in the city he’s lived his whole life, and by trying to win back the house he hopes to rekindle that feeling.

This sense of isolation permeates the whole film. Every scene seems to take place with no other people around for miles. When Jimmie and his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) visit a real estate office it feels as if it’s the only business in town; when they visit Jimmie’s aunt it seems as if they’re practically in Arizona. This spacial displacement is most noticeable at the bus stop Jimmie and Montgomery frequent. They sit atop rocks on the side of the road, and the bus never comes; there’s hardly any evidence that this is an actual stop. When Jimmie and Montgomery bail on the bus and ride Jimmie’s skateboard back to the city, Talbot delivers a long shot of black folks spread out along the roadside in sporadic gatherings, as if this roadside is the only place they have left in the city to call their own.

And when we do come into contact with others, the encounters are usually unwanted. The couple living in Jimmie’s childhood home has little patience for his recurring appearances, and a trolley full of boorish tech company employees serves as an omen of what the city has become. Jimmie’s neighborhood is gentrified, his water poisoned, and his place in the city unclear. Whatever childhood nostalgia Jimmie has for San Francisco, his future there looks bleak.

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And yet the film does have a tender eye for its locale. There are lush images abound, accompanied by a stunning score by Emile Mosseri that serve as the backdrop for Jimmie’s skateboard expeditions. It’s gorgeous stuff, the kind of beautiful camerawork you figure might have been produced if Monet had been around for Instagram. Much like the film’s attention toward issues like racial inequity and gentrification, Talbot and Fails’s love for San Francisco is expressed visually, to great effect. Talbot is able to take on a lot of emotional and historical baggage with some fine camerawork.

The essential spirit of the film’s relationship with San Francisco is neatly summarized in a scene near the end of the film, in which Jimmie overhears a couple of white women, evidently newcomers to the area, complaining about the city. “Do you love it?” he asks them. They demur. “You don’t get to hate it,” he replies, “unless you love it.”

This is the category to which The Last Black Man in San Francisco belongs: not a love letter to a city but something more complicated, an ode to a city which will always be loved but for which the act of love is becoming more difficult by the day. It is full of love, but also full of sadness. It’s a love letter, re-read years after the romance has fizzled out.

In this way, the film reminds me most strongly of 25th Hour, Spike Lee’s underappreciated masterpiece about a man reevaluating his life in the 24 hours before he is set to serve a seven-year stint in jail. 25th Hour was released in 2002, and it was Lee’s first feature film since the 9/11 attacks. It’s an anxious, paranoid film that wrestles with the guilt, anger, and resilience that encompassed what it meant to be a New Yorker at that time.

The film’s most memorable scene comes when its main character Monty (Edward Norton) sees the words “fuck you” scrawled on a bathroom mirror. This launches him on a tirade about the various factions in the city, putting each of them down before circling the scorn back on himself. The words themselves are vicious, but the specificity with which he describes also implies reverence. It’s reminiscent of how lovingly Lady Bird describes Sacramento, even while deriding it. Love and attention, Sister Sarah Jean suggests in that film, are one and the same.

In an interview around the time of 25th Hour’s release, Lee had this to say about the bathroom speech scene: “It’s just part of living in NYC with all these different cultures combined and clashing with one another...That’s what I love about NYC. Anyone that lives here will have a love-hate relationship.”

The Last Black Man in San Francisco feels very different from your typical Spike Lee Joint. It’s much less angry, and much more resigned. But it shares the mentality of this scene from 25th Hour. It is just as visually incendiary, and just as pointed in decrying the localized effects of American capitalism. But it is also a cinematic spectacle, and implies a love for San Francisco through the attention the city is paid. It’s a unique vision that breaks free of the confines of the cinematic love letter.

There is another mini-genre to which The Last Black Man in San Francisco belongs: the San Francisco-based movie about racial inequity and destructive capitalism, alongside two other recent films, Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You. Again, though, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is distinct in this regard. Both of those films were trying to say something: Wake up America. This is what’s wrong with you. They were message movies and, to varying degrees of success, used San Francisco as their backdrop. But Talbot and Fails have no interest in seeking remedies, or even delving into the roots of their city’s problems. They are simply interested in creating something that expresses what it means to have a place slip away from you. It might not be as adulatory as Allen’s Rhapsody in Blue, but it might be a fuller, truer evocation of love on screen.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco: 3.5 stars

Jacob SkubishComment