Release Date: June 7th, 2019
Director: Joe Talbot | MPAA Rating: R | LeavittLens Rating: 7.5/10
“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood”
Eliot penned these words in 1929, referencing how contextual knowledge of an artist or poet can sometimes limit the richness of his experience in reading. The more you know beforehand, the more your preconceived notions play a role in your reception of the metaphors and imagery therein; but every once in awhile, a poem or poet comes along free of reference point or context, providing an opportunity for metaphor to wash over us anew. The Sundance Film Festival often serves as a venue for new artists, and the 2019 Best Director and Jury Prize winner The Last Black Man In San Fransisco proves Eliot’s point emphatically. It is a work of visual poetry, with images serving as the metaphorical vehicles for profound commentary on friendship, racial strife, and gentrification, all the while affirming a deep and profound love for a flawed and beautiful city.
The feature debut from writer-director Joe Talbot, TLBMISF introduces us to two friends named Jimmie (played by Jimmie Fails, in an pseudo-autobiographical take) and his friend Mont (a developing playwright played compellingly by Jonathan Majors); both men live in San Francisco, having grown up together in the city. While they presently reside with Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover) in cramped quarters, Jimmie has an affinity for a house in the city, as his family history states that his grandfather built it nearly a century earlier. He and Mont routinely travel to the house, often riding together on a single skateboard in lieu of a characteristically late bus. Each time they travel to the house, Jimmie checks in on various aspects, from the garden to the window trim paint, often even taking it upon himself to improve it. However, this constant upkeep he performs on these visits upsets the current residents, a wealthy white family that has assumed living in the home since Jimmie and his father were unable to afford it. This tension sets the stage for a tale both somber and joyful, profound and simple.
The delivery of these feelings consists largely of images; Talbot intentionally unfolds his shots slowly, coupling them with melodic choirs, organs, and piano. His frame is a cathedral, filled with icons meant for careful meditation and thoughtful reflection more than visceral thrill. The central holy object here, though, is a city, one with a complex history and a challenging present. His opening montage brings this vision to its fullest realization, and is is the most compelling introduction to a film in 2019, filling the eyes with wonderment and curiosity.
Viewed only as a love letter to San Fransisco, the film serves its function, but it does not remain only that. It seems Talbot is fully aware that a city, akin to a church, is a people more than it is a place, and he devotes substantial time to the characters, major and minor. Mont in particular shines, an artist attempting to make sense of his world amidst his complex surroundings. He serves as an ideal companion to Jimmie, whose single-minded drivenness needs a perspective that can at once hear and challenge him. Beyond these two main characters, we are introduced to an abundance of secondary characters that fill out the portrait of the city. From a nude old man at a bus stop to Jimmie’s aunt living in a trailer, from a street preacher without a congregation to a demeaning real estate agent, the film immerses you in San Fransisco, giving immense character beyond the beautiful scenery.
While some of the movie’s slowness may warrant diminishing returns for some audiences, it seems that this is precisely the point: one is not supposed to rush through the city. We are instead implored to see it, smell it, and taste it. While the title speaks of a terminal character, one thing is for certain: The Last Black Man will not be Talbot’s last dance in cinema.