Monday 18 May 2020

The Last Black Man In San Francisco (2020) - Movie Review

Fucking hell, this is gorgeous. I know that I usually reserve that kind of nuanced, thought-provoking statement for later on in the review, saving this space for some long-winded wind-up to introduce the film, but there really is no other way to preface just how beautiful this thing looks. The feature debut of Joe Talbot, who has been brewing this film along with star Jimmie Fails for years now (dating back to before they even knew how to film shit in the first place), this is one of those Sex, Lies, And Videotape situations where, if not actively told this was a debut, you’d think it’s the work of someone with at least a decade of produced experience under his belt. But nope; Talbot is just that damn good.

The entire aesthetic surrounding this film is of highlighting the artistry and beauty of everyday life, making everything from the ornate Victorian house that serves as the focal point for the story, to the numerous shots of gentrification at work in the neighbourhood surrounding the house, look like frameable pictures each and every one. Add to that Emile Mosseri’s soundtrack work, where choral arrangements and string sections glide and soar over the images, and despite its literally domestic trappings, it feels gigantic as a production.

It’s so ingrained in the production that there’s even a character avatar for that very methodology within the story, here shown as Jonathan Majors as Mont, Jimmie’s best friend (Fails plays a fictionalised version of himself), who frequently turns the environment around him into art. Writing a play about the people in the area, drawing pictures of kids throwing rocks at each other (okay, that sounds a lot more visceral than it actually turns out, but still), even addressing a group of street-corner shit-talkers like he’s blocking an acted scene; he serves as the artistic core of the film’s narrative.

And then there’s Jimmie himself, who rounds out the sheer finesse on display with a lot of historical and cultural context. The story is ostensibly about him reclaiming his grandfather’s old house, which has since been bought by an elderly white couple, and that is used as a springboard to look at how much of the area has changed in just a handful of decades and, more pointedly, why it changed and who did it. In that vein, it taps into plentiful amounts of alienation and displacement, from a rent-controlled building in the area that its own landlord burnt down, to how the area used to be home to Japanese immigrants, who were then vacated to concentration camps during World War II.

And in the middle of all that is Jimmie, a man determined to get back his ancestral home, all fitted with the hideous irony that he has been taking better care of the house than the people who technically own it. That statement on its own speaks volumes in terms of land rights and ownership, as it’s a sentiment that pretty much all First Peoples across the globe can relate to on some level. Hell, here in Australia, where our version of the Great National Dream is home ownership, it hits pretty damn hard on what it means to have a ‘home’.

It is around those two halves that the rest of the film revolves, making for a genuinely exceptional drama that matches preternatural talent from all involved (much like Talbot, Jimmie Fails carries the film like a fucking champion, showing a lot of skill for a first-time lead role) with an uncanny understanding of what this kind of white flight-informed displacement can do to the people of any neighbourhood. It’s less angry than it is contemplative and a touch melancholic ‘cause, as Jimmie himself says, “you don’t get to hate it unless you love it”.

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