Narrative coherence is sacrificed to visual poetry in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a film that’s pictorially impressive but fails to engage simply as a story. For a while it coasts along on its succession of hypnotic images, but ultimately its wooziness becomes wearying.
At its basis, Joe Talbot’s film is a story of the profound melancholy that gentrification can cause in those who lose precious family property. Jimmie (Jimmie Fails, who co-wrote the script with Talbot, using his own experience) is a somber skateboarder with a faraway look in his eyes. He works, at least occasionally, as an aide in a nursing home, but devotes as much time as he can to the upkeep of the exterior of a handsome old house in the city’s Fillmore District, an area that was once predominantly African-American. Jimmie spent the first years of his childhood in the house, which he believes was built by his grandfather, and though it’s now occupied by a white couple who are not terribly happy about his unauthorized intrusions on their property, he is determined to keep it in pristine condition.
Jimmie is estranged from his parents—his father (Rob Morgan), who’s apparently peddling pirated DVDs, has little to do with him, and his mother barely acknowledges him when they bump into one another. So he rooms with his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors), a fish-market clerk and aspiring playwright, in the home of Mont’s frail grandfather Allen (Danny Glover). Mont accompanies Jimmie on his travels through the streets of the city, carrying a notebook in which he records material for use in his writing efforts.
When the couple in Jimmie’s house leaves as the result of a squabble over an inheritance, he decides to move in, bringing belongings retrieved from his Aunt Wanda (Tichina Arnold). Mont moves in as well, and they consult with a realtor (Finn Wittrock) about how to go about buying it. (Naturally, the sleazy fellow will target it for himself.) They begin transforming the inside as well as the outside.
But questions arise about Jimmie’s notions concerning the house, especially after a guide (Jello Biafra), leading a bunch of tourists around the neighborhood on scooters, argues that it must be much older than his grandfather’s time. That will lead to the film’s climax: a play Mont writes and performs in the house that, in a windy and histrionic way, effectively argues that his friend needs to abandon his illusions and move on.
There are a few other threads to the narrative. One centers on a group of young black men who occupy an area on the street outside Grandfather Allen’s house, acting like a sort of Greek chorus, badgering Jimmie and Mont and quarreling among themselves; the boys will invite one of them, Kofi (Jamal Trulove) inside their house, but tragedy soon follows. Periodically a preacher (Willie Hen) appears on the street, carrying a crate on which he stands to harangue no one in particular. There’s a subplot about an old friend of Jimmie’s father, Bobby (Mike Epps), who lives in a car. And there are other grace notes designed to convey the poignancy of displacement and transformation, like a brief scene in which Jimmie sits on a bench, joined there by an aging, nude hipster, and both are ridiculed by a crowd passing by on a tour bus.
All of this is filmed by cinematography Adam Newport-Berra in luminous, lush tones, transforming the individual shots into poetic compositions that are undeniably beautiful. Yet while in their totality they provide a visual feast suffused with the longing for times past that is obviously the film’s fundamental point, when one looks beneath the surface there’s not much complexity to be discerned. In a film that runs a full two hours, that’s a problem. So is the fact that apart from a few of the supporting characters—Morgan’s James Sr., Arnold’s aunt, the guys in the chorus, Hen’s preacher—the performances haven’t much energy. That’s especially the case with Fails and Majors, though the latter certainly gets a chance to explode from his lethargy performing his one-person play. The house, however, is quite extraordinary both inside and out, and may become a true tourist attraction in future.
The soft tone of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” which is soothing despite the socio-economic issues at its core, has a lulling effect—so lulling, in fact, that despite (or perhaps because of) the visual opulence, it might just put you to sleep.