15 June 2019 | bastille-852-731547
Well-Made, Thoughtful Yet Ever-So-Slightly Empty Drama
This independent drama on the effects of gentrification in San Francisco played to strong reviews at Sundance. It's also distributed by A24, and their films are generally very high-quality. Judging from its trailer, the film looked to be a mix of understatedly beautiful aesthetics (including some extraordinary cinematography of the Bay Area,) searing character drama, and social commentary. The film is generally well-made, and some aspects of it are undeniably impressive for a directorial debut.
The plot follows a man named Jimmie, whose grandfather built a house in San Francisco on land he purchased during World War II. Today, Jimmie wishes to live in this spacious Victorian house, but its market value has skyrocketed due to gentrification of the neighborhood (and nearby neighborhoods) near where it is located. He begins to develop a scheme with his best friend to move into the house. The film's cinematography is exceptional, and manages to juxtapose both realism and romanticism in terms of how it depicts both the ideals and the realities of San Francisco residents today. Some of the film's shots may remind viewers of Spike Lee's early films, but the film's aesthetic always feels wholly original at the end of the day. The film also uses a variety of other visual and narrative tricks, such as a tableaux vivant-style scene, to help convey the points it is trying to make on how gentrification is affecting relationships between people in urban areas today, much less exacerbating social inequality. The film's simple score is beautiful and almost haunting at times in terms of its elegance and emotional power. The performances in the film are generally strong, as the almost laid-back method acting of the two leads is thoughtful and impactful in its sheer simplicity.
Despite the film's clear achievements on a technical and narrative level that intersects strong performances with aesthetics, "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" isn't perfect. The film doesn't have too many key plot points, which would normally be okay given the film's understated tone. However, the film does feel rather drawn-out in that the narrative doesn't always impact even scenes in which the director is trying to promote substance over style. The narrative's climax is also a bit disappointing. It lacks a clear transition both preceding it and after it, and doesn't quite pack the impact on a viewer in which a film's climax should. That said, the ending is generally satisfying. Also, the film's social commentary is a bit of a mixed bag in that it shows the ways in which gentrification has affected San Francisco--yet it manages to reduce supporting characters both benefitting from and greatly harmed by gentrification to almost caricatures. As a result, the film's messaging on the perils of gentrification in cities comes up just a little short, and clearly falls below the effectiveness of social commentary in films like "Get Out." That said, there's definitely plenty to like about this indie drama. Generally recommended. 7/10