LFF 2019 | The Last Black Man in San Francisco

I’ve never seen a film like The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Written, directed and produced by Joe Talbot, a San Francisco native, with his friend, co-writer and lead actor Jimmie Fails (on whom the story is partially based), this biographical voyage is in turns poetic, elegiac and crackling with vestiges of cinéma vérité.

It almost feels impossible to write about – the kind of film that words won’t do justice to. Not least because I’m a white woman in North London, whose visited San Francisco once to see Alcatraz, the Sea Lions at Pier 39 and the Giants.

And yet, therein lies the merit of cinema – that something which shouldn’t necessarily appeal to an individual is able to transcend characteristics to speak directly to your soul. The Last is about black identity, yes. Particular to a city where poorer communities are increasingly peripheralized and priced out by baby boomers and millenials. And yet, it remarks on loss, nostalgia and wanting something to be true so much that invention warps into narrative and then calcifies into reality. It’s about creative and financial struggles, interior design and property porn. It spoke to my fear of never making it onto any kind of ladder. Metaphorical or otherwise. It’s about the disintegration of friendship and the daily hardship that is life.

It plays like a great American novel – searching, sprawling and underpinned by social consciousness as Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) skirt around propriety (and skate around the city) to reclaim the majestic house that Jimmie’s grandfather built. A historic and eclectic Victorian building, in a city increasingly falling victim to architectural homogeneity.

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There is a wildness and largesse here that cannot be contained (by genre, adjectives or comparison), as the film encounters street preachers, vagrants and pavement-dwellers, recalling Faulkner, Morrison and Of Mice and Men. But for all its literary allusions (Mont is an aspiring playwright who pens and performs a piece named after the film’s title), cinema pulses through its veins. Talbot’s directorial impulses share DNA with contemporary black cinema such as Moonlight and Blindspotting, as well as the visual mastery of contemporary Andersonian cinema (Wes and Paul-Thomas). Indeed, the framing of every shot is so exquisite it sometimes felt like being at an exhibition.

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The soundtrack is another feat of perfection; with original riffs on classics such as Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue and Scott McKenzie’s “I’m going to San Francisco”, and stirring compositions from Emile Mosseri. Hairs will stand on the back of your neck and your heart will thump in time to the beat.

As Jimmie’s dreams of owning his ancestral home are met with bureaucratic and capitalist obstacles (encapsulated by a smarmy Finn Wittrock), the film begs the question where do we belong when the past has been plastered over, and the road to the future looks foggy?

As Mont makes a final tour around the house – now for sale – we see idiosyncratic antiques and storied clutter replaced by Pinterest-worthy ‘corners’ and clean design. But Talbot ensures this poignancy never gives way to pity. The city still belongs to Jimmie and Mont and their motley crew, because as Jimmie says to a pair of interlopers, “you don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”

 

 

LFF 2019 | Clemency

If not a call to arms, then Clemency, from director Chinonye Chukwu (the first black woman to receive Sundance’s Grand Jury prize), is a call to attention.

Exacting and spartan, this death row drama begins as prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodward) oversees her 11th execution, and ends as she leaves her 12th. What happens in between is the slow unfurling of a tightly coiled woman.

Image result for clemency filmRarely veering from Bernadine’s perspective, it’s as narrow in its focus as the prison corridors it stalks (shot with ingenuity and precision by cinematographer Eric Branco). And this sometimes wears thin. Bernadine is stoic to a fault, unerring in her formality (note how she uses the same refrain to both a death row inmate and his mother as a source of comfort: “We’ll let you know when it’s time.”) and she’s a hard protagonist to penetrate or empathise with, even when the internal crisis between doing her job and doing what’s right begins to bubble over.

Clemency is relentless in its sobriety. Bernadine’s crisp white suits and beige cardigans further reflective of a world without colour, or hope. Both inmates and civilians alike (including her high school teacher husband Jonathan, played by Wendell Pierce, and public defender Marty) seem jaded and dormant. The 12th inmate – Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) – gives a particularly poignant performance as a man whose light has been extinguished long before the state declares it.

Conversations have a tendency to feel a bit rote and lifeless – although a scene with Danielle Brooks (on the other side of the glass) is electrifying for both its writing and performance – and contrivance occasionally rears its head.

Yet Clemency rewards viewers who take note of detail – flinches in movement, the slightest grimace, the jolt of waking up from a bad dream – and Chukwu’s calculations pay off in two potent outbursts. The first, a desperate, self-inflicted, and flinch-inducing act of violence. The second, an emotional reprieve and a jolt from a living nightmare that serves as a welcome gasp of air in a film that keeps you underwater and under its spell for much of the running time.