By Richard Roeper
A little black girl is in no particular hurry to get to school. After all, everything about life is so interesting at this moment in time.
She looks up at a white man in a hazmat suit who is part of a team doing some sort of cleanup in the bay. She hops and skips past yellow crime tape.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” opens with this imagery. At first, it’s easy to mistake it for a modern-day sci-fi horror film, heavy on the world-building and allegory. It turns out to be something quite different, something beautiful and melancholy and almost musical in its language.
The talented director and co-writer Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Fran- cisco” is a story of two cities, of the haves and have-nots, of people living in the same town but in completely different worlds.
On one corner, a group of young men spends all day and night doing nothing, watching the world go by, trying to stay out of trouble except for the times when they go looking for trouble.
On another corner, exiting the $4 million Victorian “Painted Lady” house that was built in the 19th century, a fussy couple always seems to be on their way to a farmer’s market or coming home from an expensive dinner.
In this world of contrasting lives, we find two street-smart, book-smart, tough yet sensitive best friends, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors).
Sometimes they go to work, and sometimes they seem to have the entire day to themselves. They live with Montgomery’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover in a warm and sharp performance), who loves to sit with the guys at night, while his grandson relates the visuals of old crime movies playing on the TV.
Montgomery is an aspiring playwright who draws beautiful sketches of the neighborhood and its characters, his ears always listening for possible dialogue. Jimmie is obsessed with reclaiming the house in San Francisco’s historic Fillmore District that was built by his grandfather some 70 years ago but is now occupied by a middle-aged couple who don’t appreciate the magnificence of the unique structure.
This is a gorgeously shot film, alternating between images of San Francisco at its most beautiful and promising, and visuals of the lost, the homeless and the forgotten, who are invisible to the techies, the artistes and the upscale movers and shakers.
Jimmie is a dreamer, to the point of being borderline delusional about certain things. Montgomery goes along with Jimmie’s schemes and illusions until he no longer can. Fails and Majors are nothing short of incredible, each delivering powerful performances and hitting it out of the park in showcase scenes. Theirs is one of the most authentic and touching relationships you’ll see in any film this year.
Some movies you can shake off by the time you exit the multiplex. You go back to your life, thinking about the rest of your day or evening. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is not one of those movies.