A sense of dislocation in ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’
It’s easy enough to summarize “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” The bluntness of the title sees to that. An African-American, Jimmie Fails, who lives in that rapidly — no, radically — gentrifying city becomes obsessed with a house where three generations of his family have previously lived. Now owned by someone else, it’s worth $4 million. Through a set of only slightly implausible circumstances, the owners have moved out and no one will be moving in. Jimmie and his friend Monty set up residence. Their doing so is at once reclamation project, act of defiance, and squat.
To summarize is not to describe, and describing “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” isn’t easy. For one thing, the movie is daring and unconventional. It’s daring in feeling so static, with a distinctive, unhurried rhythm. It’s unconventional in letting evocation drive plot more than events do. It can feel a bit dreamlike that way. A melancholy lyricism defines the movie. In another context, the fact that Monty (Jonathan Majors), who works in a fish market, writes plays and is frequently seen sketching might seem incongruous. Here it just makes sense, the way Jimmie’s bumping into his long-absent mother on a bus does.
The closest thing the movie has to a star is Danny Glover, who plays the friend’s blind grandfather. The actor who plays the obsessed man is Jimmie Fails — yes, same as the character — and the actor gets co-credit for the story. That lamination of fact, fiction, and inspiration suggests how hard it is to pin down the movie. Sometimes it can be a bit confusing. The logic the movie follows isn’t necessarily the logic the audience does. Emotional dislocation comes to matter even more than economic, social, and racial dislocation do, and they matter a lot.
Joe Talbot’s feature-directing debut (he also cowrote the script) has elements of social realism, political polemic, even family drama. The most remarkable scene in the movie is nothing more complicated than Jimmie and his estranged father (Rob Morgan, in a gut-punch performance) sitting in a room talking. Apparently, the father makes a few bucks pirating DVDs, because as they talk he’s carefully inserting discs into sleeves. No explanation is offered. “Last Black Man” is a no-explanations-offered movie.
The discs are an odd detail, but one that feels oddly right. There are a lot of things like that in the movie. Another is when a long-disused pipe organ in the house gets played, and dust emerges with the music. It’s magical. Or there’s the burgundy-colored homburg that the father wears to the performance of one of Monty’s plays. The hat makes him look like a drug kingpin in a blaxploitation picture, and “Last Black Man” has the unillusioned rawness and seeming ad hoc quality of the best of those movies.
In some ways, “Last Black Man” is kind of a mess, but the messiness makes its own sense, or at least it does until about 90 minutes in. Once Jimmie’s dad doffs his homburg and takes a seat, be prepared for some serious head-scratching. Clearly, “Last Black Man” isn’t a standard feature film — one man’s Jimmie Fails is another man’s . . . Jimmie Fails? — but neither is it straightforward social commentary, which is how some reviewers have chosen to frame it. In many ways it’s a parable: clear yet opaque, simple yet weighty.
There are two far-afield works it recalls. One is surprising, but the connection makes sense when you think about it. The other is even more surprising, but in that surprise you find the film’s richest aspect.
The first is Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (1952), that one-of-a-kind novel wherein Dostoyevsky collides with racial oppression. The resemblance may be intentional. An African-American character lives in what used to be Jimmie’s car, and the new owner has strung the interior with lights — an allusion to the light-filled basement room where the hero of Ellison’s novel lives? More generally, the resemblance comes from the interweaving of unnerving unreality with even more unnerving reality.
The second work is another movie: “Booksmart,” that very sassy current high school comedy about two young women soon to go off to college. Like Jimmie and Monty, they live in California, but it’s the green, happy heedlessness of Los Angeles. The comparison sounds totally weird, and it is; nor could it in any way be intentional — and “Last Black Man” is a movie very big on intentionality. All parables are.
But what the movies have in common is this: Ultimately, both are about friendship — not just the buddy-movie kind, but the shape and feel and inexplicability of the real thing. “Last Black Man” is about Jimmie seeking a home: a literal house at a specific address. That’s one response to dislocation, and a very sensible one. What Jimmie doesn’t realize is that he already has a home, and it’s the absolute bond he shares with Monty. That’s a different and more sustaining antidote to dislocation. This may be the deepest message of this sometimes ridiculous, sometimes transfixing movie: We are all of us alone, except for those rare, indelible, known-in-the-bones moments when we’re not.
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
Directed by Joe Talbot. Written by Talbot, Rob Richert, and Jimmie Fails. Starring Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Rob Morgan. At Kendall Square and Boston Common. 120 minutes. R (language, brief nudity, drug use).