“The Last Black Man In San Francisco”

A sense of place is romanticized in this dreamy art film about the Harlem of the West, San Francisco. There is much to like, and much to question. The first fifteen minutes of  “The Last Black Man In San Francisco” is confusing with voices lost in the music. I kept thinking what August Wilson could have done with this story. It takes too long to identify Jimmie ( Jimmie Fails ) and Mont ( Jonathan Majors ), and their love relationship never feels like a physical one. It is only hinted at by their friends’ teasing jeers.

The cinematography is innovative, though “ Moonlight”  ( reviewed Nov. 18th, 2016 ) comes to mind. I loved the close-up pauses on faces and figures as our two main characters share a skateboard down San Fran’s hilly streets. The camera lens often picks up a glare, and the prism effect distracts and reminds us that this is a film with a camera man. This is off-putting for filmgoers because it takes us away from the story.

The story deals with memory, self-worth, loss, dignity, and love. First time director, Joe Talbot, keeps the real story of his friend, Jimmie Fails, close to his heart. Urban displacement and gentrification are subjects at the root of the film. The house in question is a turreted Victorian in the Fillmore District. Four million is its commercial worth, but to Jimmie, who still does touch-up painting on its sills, the emotional worth is priceless. The friends ultimately become squatters and refurbish the house with all the antiques and memorabilia that Jimmie’s aunt has stored.

Below the house’s many fish scales and curlicues, a segue-way tour gives the home’s architectural history. Jimmie corrects the guide from a top window. He believes that his grandfather built the house in the 1940’s as the Japanese were placed in internment camps. Montgomery listens and worries that his friend may be obsessed with the property. He has tied his self-worth to the structure.

A group of homies lends an operatic chorus to the moving saga. Scenes of a cable car party, a shot gun death, a sidewalk memorial, and a naked, but hatted and shod bus rider fill in the panorama of a changing city. The loosely constructed script comes together with a memorable denouement. Montgomery has finished his play, ” The Last Black Man In San Francisco” and he performs it as a one man show in the house’s attic.

His costumes are made and the play bills are given out to the selected guests. The score of Emile Mosseri meshes real pain with a gentle sweetness that underscores San Francisco’s loss as Jimmie rows his woodie toward the Golden Gate Bridge. ” Be Sure To War A Flower In Your Hair” becomes hauntingly sad.