Dear Fellow Critics,
If aliens were to come across a random list of everyone’s favourite films of 2019, they’d see a solid run-down of predictable awards season fare - a good chunk of which might make them think, “Wow, these Earthlings sure love their normalizing takes on very bad/dumb men,” BUT I digress.
It’s not that the titles buzzing on everyone’s lips aren’t good – I liked most of them a lot. However, for me, 2019 at the movies was good, but not knock-my-socks-off good; solid entertainment, but not worth all the hype. And yes, hard eye roll to all the giddy adulation for films that bend over backwards to explain why shitty, dangerous men are shitty and dangerous and why we should feel sorry for them, but make no actual point beyond that. ANYWAY.
Enough about Hollywood and its dumb men. To talk about my favourite film of 2019, we’re going to have to venture outside the Kingdom of Whitemaleia. I’m happy to finally have a chance to talk about Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the only thing I saw last year that was still in my head two days later. I was not expecting a film about two black men struggling with issues surrounding poverty, displacement, and belonging to be the most relatable film I saw all year, but that is exactly why it’s at the top of my list.
I visited San Francisco once, many years ago. I had a fun few days, but didn’t see or do much beyond the usual touristy stuff. I certainly never saw anything of Jimmie and Mont’s San Francisco, and probably missed a lot of the film’s ‘inside’ jokes and references that would resonate with San Franciscan audiences, so I was surprised at how easily and deeply I connected with the story and characters. And it’s not just because, as a Torontonian, I can relate to real estate panic and a looming sense of displacement deep down into my toes. From city to city, as housing crises keep getting worse, conversations about affordability and belonging are often clumsy and vicious, dominated by the loudest and meanest among us. A film like The Last Black Man… invites us to think a little deeper on belonging and the notion of selfhood, and how it is tied to our concept of home and place. It explores the different ways in which we say, “I belong here;” for people like Jimmie, it’s about owning physical space; for others, like Mont, belonging is established and emphasized in the stories and written records of our experiences in and of a place.
The great thing about The Last Black Man… is that, with so much going on, Talbot deftly maintains a perfect balance between pathos and humour. The narrative gets deeply political at times, but this is not the type of film that will inspire outrage. It offers no solutions or suggestions regarding displacement, and arguably doesn’t even come down as hard on gentrification as one might expect. It raises questions around the concept of belonging, but doesn’t leave you too unsettled by the end. I keep coming back to The Last Black Man… in my head not just because I can relate to the story, but also because of its many small, perfect moments - certain shots, or numbers on the soundtrack that randomly make me smile when I remember them. It also earns major bonus points for providing respite from the impotent male rage that practically drenched big and small screens all damn year. Seriously, here’s to privileged dudes being a little less off their faces on their persecution complexes in 2020 but probably not because who are we even kidding.