The Last Black Man in San Francisco ought to feature high on any list of 2019 Releases That Got Away. Midwifed into existence by none-more-hip film-boutique A24, it was snapped up at last year's Sundance (where it won the Best Directing prize) by Universal suits who may have felt they had another Moonlight on their hands, only for the film to be shuffled out in the UK in the dog days of December, once it became clear those suits didn't quite know how to sell it overseas. Watching the movie, you may have some sympathy for the executives' dilemma, for though it bears some comparison with what's come before it, it remains largely and admirably its own thing. It features no stars (with due respect to Danny Glover and Mike Epps, tucked away in supporting roles), fosters a distinctive, mellow-melancholic mood, and wants to talk at length about topics the movies don't often discuss in depth these days: heritage, legacy, gentrification. (You'll note the irony of an indie venture on these themes getting picked up for general consumption by a sprawling multimedia conglomerate.) What it also announces, though, is a properly cinematic sensibility: a writer-director - in Joe Talbot - who displays a natural feel for the medium, who knows how best to use the screen to catch the eye. Consider the opening sequence, which sets our heroes Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Mont (Jonathan Majors) to gliding through the streets of San Francisco to a refurbed scrap of Michael Nyman: two guys, one skateboard, a location that hasn't been examined on screen for a while (Talbot even casts a passing eye over the wainscoting), and a desire to bestow some mobility on a pair of down-at-heel slackers, to make them, however briefly, princes of their own city. Sometimes that's all you need to make a movie. Getting it seen and sold is clearly a whole other business.
The skateboard's a step down from the trusty steed, but like the noble knights of yore, Jimmie and Mont have a quest, and even a castle of sorts to protect, in an eccentric, turreted three-storey bayside property (with built-in organ), apparently designed by Jimmie's grandfather ("the first black man in San Francisco") in 1946. Trouble is, as young, impecunious African-Americans, the house is no longer theirs: it belongs to an uptight, middle-aged white couple (Maximilienne Ewalt and Michael O'Brien) who remain altogether bemused at Jimmie's insistence on coming round to paint the windowsills and do the upkeep they themselves are unwilling to perform. When circumstances force the couple to move out, Jimmie - a group-home child who's spent time on the streets in the years since - spies a chance to finally make a place for himself. ("No place like home", as he puts it, citing a touchstone of a distantly Depressed America.) It's just that Talbot has already shown us a house of a similar vintage just down the street being demolished to make way for something new and doubtless costlier. What follows is a struggle both specific to this neighbourhood - which often looks like the edge or end of the world, cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra setting us down with a view onto the Bay and the plant where the atom bomb was built - and to black men and women across America. Yet it's also (if you'll pardon the pun) universal. Jimmie's struggles to get his feet back under his grandfather's antique table are those of many young cinemagoers struggling to get even a toe onto the property ladder; his street seems not so far removed from our own streets, similarly subject to the same non-natural, man-made laws of supply and demand.
Throughout, Talbot wears his influences on his sleeve, but at unexpected angles, in unusual, generally rewarding combinations. His front-on framing and nifty insert work (using, say, the photos tacked behind a car mirror to establish the Epps character in one shot) is pure Spike Lee, and indeed you could approach The Last Black Man... as an attempt to do for the Bay area what Lee has done for Brooklyn in the TV She's Gotta Have It. But Talbot is the rueful Lee: any residual, hand-me-down anger has been drained by an understanding of how the world and its markets now work, unfair as that is. You see it most clearly among the remnants of Jimmie's family, who look askance at this kid's wildly optimistic project, and flag the futility of seeking anything more than you're allotted in life. Even best friend Mont, very much the Sancho Panza to our quixotic hero, begins to wonder whether Jimmie isn't driving himself unnecessarily crazy, and that it'd surely be saner for him to walk away from the banks and the realtors and whatever dreams he's tending up there in that sorrowful-looking head of his; it's just that Talbot has already shown us Jimmie doesn't really have anyplace else to go. For all that, the film is lively, not mopey: its rhythms are gentle but unpredictable, and it can't stop itself from shooting off at tangents. Visually and narratively, The Last Black Man... is as restless as Blindspotting or Sorry to Bother You, two of the standout titles in this latest wave of African-American filmmaking, and yet Talbot isn't afraid to push beyond those films' tragicomic farce and into properly dramatic real estate. There's a lovely, droll encounter between Jimmie and a naked man at a bus stop, who delicately sets down a handkerchief before taking his seat, only to be jeered at by a passing tramload of partyboys; you realise that both in his main storyline and this anecdote, Talbot is getting at the struggle to hold onto a handful of dignity in a city (and a world) moving in a totally different direction.
Not all the director's instincts pay off quite so forcefully. There's a streak of self-reflexivity running through the scenes between Mont, his blind uncle (Glover) to whom he describes the old movies playing on TV, and the local hoods, whom Mont approaches as though they were an unruly theatre troupe; these scenes don't work nearly as well, being the rough edges that get sanded off or streamlined away over the course of a career. (Promisingly, they get refined a little by Talbot himself within the film, in a last-reel one-man show Mont puts on that also serves as a wake and an intervention: here, you start to see what the filmmaker was getting at, namely that Mont sees the gangbangers as poorly directed citizens, in need of a few well-chosen notes, better direction. It's not the most elegantly expressed of the film's ideas, but it's an idea nevertheless.) The two-hour running time never feels like an overreach, though: it gives the drama and characters room to breathe, allows the tensions to develop organically, and - crucially - affords the viewer time to think everything through. I found myself thinking about the great steps forward black American filmmakers have taken over the decade just gone: how the years since Moonlight have given rise to a new New Black Cinema, one that developed out of struggle (the hood dramas of the 1990s) and went beyond pleasure (say, those buppie romcoms of the Noughties) to reach for real beauty, as represented by the house in Talbot's film, and what it means to these men. In the franchise-dominated, increasingly homogenised landscape of contemporary American cinema, such beauty may require protection and some upkeep itself - but there has to be a place for it, otherwise all really is lost.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is now available to rent via Amazon Prime.