correction: An earlier version of this review misquoted a line of dialogue. This version has been updated.
Some movies tell you a story. Others invite you into a dream. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” an extraordinary debut from best friends and collaborators Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot, obeys the intuitive rhythms of a reverie, leading viewers on a graceful journey through the collective memory of a city and the deeply personal aspirations of one of its dispossessed. A lyrical, visually stunning tone poem to loss, lies, reclamation and making peace with the past, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” virtually defies conventional description. To see it is to believe it, even when it doesn’t strictly make sense.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” opens with the strains of a lilting woodwind musical score (composed with exquisite delicacy by Emile Mosseri), as a little girl — missing two front teeth, holding a lollipop — skips past a street preacher who has climbed up on a milk crate to inveigh against the pollution poisoning the San Francisco Bay. Beholding the scene are Fails — playing a character named Jimmie Fails — and his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring playwright who lives with his grandfather (Danny Glover) in the city’s Hunter’s Point neighborhood. Fails is staying with them for the time being while he nurses his life’s ambition: to move back into the glorious, slightly shabby Victorian home in the Fillmore district that his grandfather James Fails designed and built back in the 1940s. “I want to drink coffee and scratch my ass while I read the paper,” Jimmie says longingly, in one of the film’s simplest and most touching soliloquies.
When the house’s owners are away, Jimmie and Mont surreptitiously sneak in to fix the place up, making small repairs and repainting its crimson-colored trim. Meanwhile, the immediate and extended Fails family that once lived there has scattered to the four winds: Jimmie’s father (Rob Morgan) is living in an SRO hotel (the two were once homeless and living in their car), his aunt has decamped for the suburbs, and he has no contact with his mother.
Slender and endowed with an open, expressive face the camera loves, Fails is a natural on the screen, exuding a beatific presence that earns immediate empathy. He and Majors enjoy an easy camaraderie, as Jimmie and Mont respond to circumstances that put the house enticingly within their reach. Talbot — who grew up with Fails in San Francisco, and who won a prize at Sundance for directing “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” — blends a documentarian’s feel for the realities of his hometown with dashes of surrealism and playful affection reminiscent of Spike Lee and Charles Burnett. Within the life story of one young man trying to rescue his past and claim a right of return, the filmmaker finds an epic history that encompasses postwar migration, the flourishing of the “Harlem of the West,” the Haight Ashbury in the ’60s, redlining, gentrification, environmental racism and the chronic policing of black masculinity.
That specific form of social control is exerted by outside forces but also from within the African American community itself. Five neighborhood guys continually tease and harass Jimmie and Mont, forming a sometimes funny, sometimes frightening Greek chorus. Jimmie and Mont aren’t tough enough for the group — they’re gentle, funny and tender with one another. (One of the film’s most memorable scenes involves Mont defusing a violent outburst with a hilariously effective workaround.) But “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” makes space for the trauma that lies beneath even the most aggressive macho posturing.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” unfolds episodically, in gauzy, poetic images and vignettes that can be heartbreaking at one moment and quirkily comic the next.
Thematically, it’s of a piece with such recent films as “Blindspotting,” “Sorry to Bother You” and “Roman Israel, Esq.,” evoking real estate as patrimony, protection and solid purchase in a world of constant precariousness and contingency. But “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a far more eccentric and stylized film, one that’s less interested in seamless narrative than developing its own heightened visual vocabulary: Just when viewers think they know where the story is going, Talbot inserts a montage set to Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” or stages an awkward play-within-a-play. Nearly every scene has its own amusing counterpoint, whether in the form of a neighborhood lady who sells bootleg candy or bands of white tourists gawking at the locals from Segways or fake cable cars.
Through it all, Fails maintains a serene and poignant presence, skateboarding from situation to situation with (usually) impenetrable calm. There’s one whopper of a twist in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” that lifts an already elevated enterprise into something heady and more provocative. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is about many, many things, but ultimately it’s about having the courage to transcend history, with all of its burdens, gifts and most consoling myths. Even when Talbot and Fails risk unraveling the film’s most cherished verities, they do so with the mesmerizing grace of a skateboard gliding down Lombard Street.
R. AtLandmark’s E Street Cinema and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains strong language, brief nudity and drug use. 120 minutes.