The Last Black Man in San Francisco review moving tale of racial gentrification

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A quirky approach gives Joe Talbots fact-based drama the feel of a fable

You dont get to hate it unless you love it, says third-generation San Franciscan Jimmie (Jimmie Fails). Hes on a bus, quietly incensed as a pair of yuppies (one played by Thora Birch) declare that the city is over. This Sundance award-winning film, written and directed by Joe Talbot and based on his friend Failss real-life experiences, uses one hand to present a middle finger to the gentrification adversely affecting black San Franciscans, and the other to embrace the citys now-displaced artists, oddballs and crumbling architecture.

Which is not to say this is a message film; its more an archive of the fast-changing metropolis, as documented by two dreamers deeply protective of, and romantic about, their hometown. The plot centres on a regal Victorian house in San Franciscos historic Fillmore district, supposedly built by Jimmies grandfather in 1946. When the house is vacated by its white, middle-class tenants, Jimmie becomes king of his empty castle, at home among its stained-glass windows, dusty library and abandoned games room. Its a welcome change from the mattress he sleeps on in his friend Montgomerys (Jonathan Majors) cramped bedroom in Hunters Point, a low-income neighbourhood built on toxic waste.

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Talbots film is not perfect. A scene set to Joni Mitchells Blue makes its point awkwardly, and the narrative, like its characters, is prone to meandering. Yet as a film about place and personal mythology, its hugely moving. A crew of local African American men function as the storys charged Greek chorus; Emile Mosseris sweeping and optimistic woodwind score similarly emphasises the films fable-like quality. Eccentric details, such as a mutated fish with four, gawping eyes, or a shot of the princely Jimmie looking out over a hilly street in a pair of pale pink nurses scrubs, pleasingly bring to mind the films of Wes Anderson.

Watch the trailer for The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

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