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MOVIES: The Last Black Man in San Francisco (LFF 2019) - Review

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A towering, poetic triumph, The Last Black Man In San Francisco is one of the best films of the year so far, making the most out of beautiful visuals bringing it to life with a brilliant eye for detail as the film explores the changing nature that San Francisco has on the people who live there, and are forced to change with the times to great effect.

We are introduced to the main lead of the film, Jimmie Fails as the lead character himself, and Montgomery Allen, who are friends sharing a room in a small, cramped house with Montgomery’s blind father, watching old movies and killing time whilst unemployed. Jimmie dreams of returning to his family home that he grew up in as a child, one that is occupied by new owners, yet he believes he still has a right of ownership to it because his ancestor built it that he cannot quite let go of. Believing that its current owners don’t keep it in the shape that it deserves, he regularly returns to it by day when they leave, painting and fixing it up much to their discomfort when discovered. Fails delivers an Oscar-worthy performance to perfection, whilst Allen is played by a committed Jonathan Majors who rivals Allen in his dedication to the role.

There are plenty of ambitious themes that director Joe Talbot tackles in his debut film that make The Last Black Man in San Francisco so special with such a strong voice that has something to say. Themes like issues of escalating housing prices, father/son relationships and gentrification are all addressed in the film in a complex and nuanced way, rarely taking the simple approach, as Talbot clearly demonstrates a strong affection for the love of San Francisco. You can't hate San Francisco until you loved it, Jimmie tells some newcomers to the city who are regretting their move there. It's something that rings true wherever you go, it's a common belief that you can talk as much negativity about where you grew up in as you want, but the second someone who grew up somewhere else attacks it, you'll defend it to the grave. What perhaps is the film's biggest success is that regardless of where you grew up - it makes you care about San Francisco itself, which feels as important as the major characters and is arguably the third main character of the film behind the iconic duo of Jimmie and Montgomery.

It's hard to imagine Fails being played by another actor, and the audience buys his affection for the city which feels raw and genuine. Both him and Majors are as essential to the films’ success as Talbot himself, who crafts a Wong Kar-Wai-esque feel to the story, capturing the romanticised affection of the city that the characters have for it. Mercifully, The Last Black Man in San Francisco never feels the need to escalate into the final act with a dramatic or over the top conclusion that some films fall prey to, keeping its quiet and confident approach throughout the film in a way that works. The pacing is spot on and the humour – when employed, suits the film effectively. There’s a nod to I Got 5 On It that's the best use of the song since Jordan Peele's Us that had me in stitches along with most of the audience in a packed screening, and at the same time, the emotional impact hit harder than expected. Emile Mosseri’s score too is a triumph, adding extra depth to the film that helps create an even more unique experience. Backending the film nicely is the appropriate song choice of San Francisco, that feels like the most appropriate song that could have been chosen, and where the soundtrack is employed it compliments the score and the atmosphere of the drama nicely.

Talbot’s debut is one of the strongest first films of the last few years and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next. It is something that should easily be in consideration for Oscars in multiple categories and it would be criminal if this wasn’t the case. Everything is chosen in a way that benefits the film and it suits the narrative perfectly, and A24 have another winner on their hands.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is playing at the London Film Festival this year, and you can watch the trailer here.

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