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Lulu Wang (The Farewell)
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Sundance: "The Last Black Man in San Francisco"

Murtada Elfadl reporting from Sundance

While watching The Last Black Man in San Francisco - a gorgeous, specific, and fantastical fable of a film with a decidedly assured tone - I kept thinking of Oprah Winfrey’s introduction of Precious  star Gabourey Sidibe at the Oscars. “Where did that come from?”, “Where did you learn how to do that?” I was asking these questions of writer/director Joe Talbot and writer/actor Jimmie Fails. They had collaborated on a short film before, but this is their feature debut. How did they spring out of the gate so exceptionally?

In the intro before the Sundance premiere, Talbot told the audience that the film sprung from their endless conversations with each other. And it’s true the film is a paean to friends who walk and talk and, in this case, to friends who use one skateboard to get around San Francisco. The men are  Jimmie (Fails) and his quirky friend Prentice (Jonathan Majors). Jimmie has an obsession with a house he claims was built by his grandfather but which was lost by his family. He visits regularly to maintain his beloved place - fixing painting etc. - to the consternation of the current white residents.

It’s easy to characterize this film as one about gentrification. Sure a white family has taken hold of a house previously owned by a black one in a historically Asian neighborhood but it’s about more than that. It’s about who owns the history of the places we live in. It’s about what it means to feel that your home is an extension of you even if you don’t live there anymore. It captures that beautiful rush of nostalgia that washes over us as we remember things and places we love.  

Talbot tells his story with images and tone. His compositions are so precise, one doesn’t want to look away even for a second fearing you'll miss a story beat. At one such instance, Jimmie and a naked San Franciscan sit waiting at a bus stop while a trolley full of Silicon Valley bros cheer them one. That is all Talbot needed to say about the history of the city and where he thinks it’s at right now.

Cast and crew of "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" at Sundance. Director Joe Talbot, pictured in the center with the cap.

At the heart though is the tender friendship between Jimmie and Prentice, depicted with subtlety and played beautifully by the actors. Majors, in particular, is genius level at crafting a layered performance from an oddball character. In lesser hands Prentice would have surely become too precious, but Majors gives him just the right mix of whimsy and realism. Prentice’s main narrative thrust is about trying to arrive at his own idea of masculinity. His models are Jimmie (soft, empathetic, living his own dreamlike existence) and a few guys in the neighborhood who perform an idea of masculinity that is antithetical to who he is with their brutality and posturing. Yet the film is empathetic to all of these concepts.

How Talbot's handles and unites these story and character threads with such a unique tone and distinct way of storytelling, is his biggest achievement in this fine debut.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco will be distributed by A24, hopefully this year. 

Previous Sundance reviews from Murtada


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Reader Comments (7)

I've been aware of this film in the local SF pipeline for years. So happy to hear it works!

January 30, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

One of the few films coming out of Sundance that I'm excited to see.

January 30, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMya

Murtada, it seems this will win some major awards at the festival. Director? Jury Prize for acting? What are your thoughts?

January 31, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Michael R - it's definitely the strongest film in competition. I think the grand prize is between this and The Farewell... but again I haven't seen every film competition. I think they should give Jonathan Majors a prize for his performance.

January 31, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

Thanks Murtada. Enjoy the rest of the festival!

January 31, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

"talbot tells his story with images and tone." such a great observation. the film never worries about TELLING you what it's about, it just simply IS.

January 31, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPHIL

It's worth pointing out that Sundance Jury Prizes (like all festival prizes everywhere ever) don't tend to really go to the consensus best film

eg. last year Miseducation of Cameron Post beat The Tale (which is so underrated), Kindergarten Teacher (even more underrated), Sorry to Bother You (which is on hundreds of Top 10 lists now), Wildlife (which I didnt love but many did).........AND (!!!) EIGHTH freaking GRADE!! Which is a stone-cold masterpiece.

In conclusion: don't necessarily expect prizes for LBMISF, but do perhaps expect it to turn into a bigger classic than the eventual winner. Either way, I'm dddying to see it.

January 31, 2019 | Unregistered Commentergoran

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