Armed with an irresistible title, some striking visuals, and fresh takes on gentrification, black identity, and the titular city, The Last Black Man in San Francisco succeeds on many fronts, but it wears out its welcome and ultimately comes up short.
Part tone poem, part hangout movie, The Last Black Man is an unstructured drama about a man named Jimmie Fails (played by an actor named Jimmie Fails, who cowrote the story with his director/childhood friend Talbot), a sensitive fellow who is obsessed with a beautiful Victorian mansion that once belonged to his family. Jimmie spends most of his time with his eccentric friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), a would-be playwright who appears to be on the spectrum. When an opportunity to squat in the mansion arises, they take it – and that's mostly it, plot-wise.
The Last Black Man is slow going from the start, but it's kept afloat by some gripping imagery and a heartfelt performance by Fails. In fact I found it a rewarding watch for the first hour and a half of its two-hour runtime. But the final half hour bogs down considerably, as we are subjected to an enervating theatrical presentation by Montgomery inside the house, which pivots on a "reveal" that audiences will have already sussed out an hour earlier, and the sort of character resolution you'd find in a thesis film. If you walked out before that final half hour, you wouldn't be missing anything – and I can't think of many other films I'd say that about.
Too bad, because I really did like a lot about The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It's an atmospheric document of a city in transition, made by locals who clearly know and love the place. And I loved Emile Mosseri's score; he's a major find. But the film's moments of real, painful truth are sometimes overshadowed by its self-conscious absurdities – look, a mutant fish; look, a naked man – and again, there's that stilted last half hour, and Jonathan Majors's overacting. But for a good long while, it works.