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Final Portfolio

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Cole Larson
Professor Ian Riggins
English Comp 205
21 April 2020
The Surreal Beauty of The Last Black Man in San Francisco
One of the aptest summaries of the film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, by Joe
Talbot, is the following paragraph, “Jimmie and Montgomery are motivated by kindness, not
aggressive conflict, and their adventures are steeped in a fantastical wonder. They seem more
like Calvin and Hobbes than the proactive revolutionaries of the past.”(Hartlaub ¶5). Childhood
nostalgia aside, this excerpt grabbed my attention because I believed there was a profound truth
about The Last Black Man in San Francisco within it. The most captivating component of this
film for me is the transition in the duality of real and surreal that the characters Jimmie and
Montogmery go through. In the middle of dialogues or even sentences, the two seem to go from
ordinary to otherworldly. It is in this fashion of gliding in and out of surrealness that makes The
Last Black Man in San Francisco so beautiful and captivating.
One reason that this film attracts your attention from the get-go is because of the
technical elements that it contains. Adam Newport-Berra is the cinematographer for the film and
he does an outstanding job from the first shot. Every technique that is used is well thought out
and is deliberate in its action. One of my favorite scenes is the use of shot-reverse-shot in the
dialogue between Jimmie and the tour guide. In the scene, Jimmie overhears a tour guide telling
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a group about the history of the house. Jimmie is on the balcony and gives his recount of the
facts and says that the house was built in the 20th century and not the 19th as the man says. I feel
as though the convention for this technique in dialogue is to establish the mood and emotions of
the characters that are conversating, and Newport-Berra subverts that convention well. With
triumphant orchestra music as his audible backdrop, Jimmie proudly gives an exposition and
description of the house as the shot zooms out to give a full view of the house. The reverse shots
are from an upward angle and we are literally looking down on the tourists just like Jimmie.
Another technical aspect I loved was the soundtrack. Almost every scene had some
accompanying sort of sound that captured the mood perfectly that truly allow you to empathize
with the characters. Not to mention some of the songs like the song “Blue” by Joni Mitchell and
the cover “San Francisco” are just amazing.
I did not expect the vast emotional complexity that The Last Black Man in San
Francisco had to offer. There were various themes of loss, family troubles, friendship,
individualism, and coming to terms with your past that wrap themselves up into our two main
characters and their relationships with others. Throughout all of these themes which are explored
in different ways the movie still feels cohesive because of realism that is present in the scenes
and their transitions as a whole. The dance between realism and surrealism as I mentioned in my
intro is the most compelling aspect of the film and manifests itself in our lovable duo, namely
Montgomery. They are faced with worldly conflicts such as family issues, autonomy, and
Jimmie faces issues with coming to terms with his identity. While seeing these aspects of
ourselves in the main characters we are often reminded that they are in a class of their own and
are rather extraordinary. After the two are being heckled by Kofi and his crew after having him
over the night before, Jimmie asks, “You really don’t give a fuck what anybody says?” to which
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Montgomery replies, “I shouldn’t get to appreciate them ‘cause they’re mean to me? That’s
silly.” When he sees a Kofi being interrogated by his friends and an argument ensues,
Montgomery begins to record and then direct the “actors” while giving feedback. Mont lives in
his own world and can’t be bothered to let social conventions to inhibit his creativity. While the
idea of Mont using a play to let his best friend know a horrible truth about something that his
friend holds dear he resorts to the most beautiful form of truth to Mont in art, namely theatre. It
may seem sort of far fetched for this to actually happen in real life I think it is perfectly in line
with Mont’s character and makes for a genuine, emotionally tumultuous “reveal”.
Another aspect of the film that I think is interesting is how it portrays identity. Many
characters in the film struggle with their identities and finding meaning. Jimmie himself never
had a great relationship with his father in his later years and as an adolescent clung on to the
false history of the house to make himself feel special. When Kofi, Mont, and Jimmie are having
a conversation in the sauna Kofi says, “always overexaggerating shit… trying to be all special.”
This occurs when he is talking about the group home and how people there essentially created an
identity out of lies to be special, this ironic because eventually it is revealed that this one thing
Jimmie held onto was a lie. Montgomery in his monologue and grand reveal to Jimmie says,
“You exist beyond these walls, you extend beyond your forefathers.” Jimmie held on to what he
knew was a lie because it gave him a sense of purpose and identity but the traits that he
possessed were already within him. He did not need the house, it was merely the subject of his
attention. Another part of Jimmie’s identity that was explored in the movie was skateboarding.
This seemed to be a more liberating aspect of his identity and he did it because he loved it. For a
majority of the film when other characters are taking cars or buses to get around Jimmie is seen
riding his skateboard, this represents autonomy and independence to him. It appears that his
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father, who has a complex relationship with Jimmie, does not approve and when he asks Jimmie
if he still skates he says no. When they get into an argument about the house he tells Jimmie he
knows he still skates and tells him to leave. Another interesting way skateboarding is utilized is
that it was a formerly shared hobby of Kofi and Jimmie at the group home. When Jimmie asks
Kofi if he still skates he says he doesn’t anymore and Jimmie says that he used to be really good.
I think this scene shows how similar Kofi and Jimmie are they just went down different paths.
After Kofi’s death, Jimmie said, “I kinda feel like that could’ve been me. If not for the house.”
This illustrates how the two were similar but Kofi just got caught up in the wrong crowd.
All in all, I really enjoyed the film but, there were a few aspects of the film that I thought
could have been done better. My first gripe is regarding the portrayal of the white real estate
agent in an oversimplified manner. Debruge, in his article, says, “After checking with a local
Realtor — who, as a white guy, will predictably wind up trying to steal the house out from under
our hero” and “One character, a real estate agent, has a one-dimensional villainous edge that
belongs in a lesser movie.” Essentially I think that personifying the issues of gentrification onto
one man's greed is a little asinine. In the movie during the climax of the play Jimmie, the
protagonist, says “People aren’t one thing” (The Last Black Man in San Francisco). This
message was said after a play/eulogy mix was orchestrated by Mont in honor of Jimmie’s old
friend Kofi. Kofi was friends with Jimmie when they were in the group home together and along
the way, Kofi became involved in gang activity, which led to his death. Jimmie says people are
not one thing because people are not complex and have good and bad to them. This is the reason
why I disliked the characterization of the agent because it seems so contradictory to this
profound scene. When the real estate agent is confronted by Montogmery the man says “Look,
somebody on this floor would’ve gotten this house if it wasn’t me. At least I’m from here right?”
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As bad as he was and even though what he was saying was just a cop-out, some of what he said
had some truth to it. If not him then surely some agent would have come to sweep it up and may
not have been as "considerate" with the furniture. Even though the movie frames him to be
unsympathetic to the ails of Jimmie and Mont, he has a point and I wish the movie would have
honed in further on this point. Gentrification is a complex, multifaceted issue, and to understand
that it must go deeper than one evil, one-dimensional white man. Instead of making this
individual as the antagonist to our story, they could have taken the angle of maybe a struggling
real estate agent who is compelled by the inevitability of San Francisco’s housing market to
capitalize on this gem he found. This would make Montgomery’s dialogue with the agent so
much more compelling than the one that was present in the movie because there his anguish fell
on deaf ears. The superficiality of the scene was the most disappointing in such a rich, profound
movie. I think to go in a different creative direction here would have certainly hammered some
of the main themes of the film home.
In conclusion, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a cinematic masterpiece that does
not adhere to typical standards of Hollywood and tells a genuine, heartfelt story that is truly
unique. The scope of which the film envelopes such a wide range of issues and themes is aweinspiring. The movie itself was a perfect storm of great cinematography, chemistry between
actors, and a wonderful story.
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Works Cited
Debruge, Peter. “Film Review: ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco.’” Review of The Last
Black Man in San Francisco. Variety, variety.com/2019/film/reviews/the-last-black-manin-san-francisco-review-1203119375/.
Hartlaub, Peter. “Review: ‘Last Black Man in San Francisco’ a Poetic and Authentic View of the
City.” Review of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. DateBook,
Talbot, Joe, director. The Last Black Man in San Francisco. A24, 2019.