Nominated for Nothing: The Academy doesn't get to hate The Last Black Man in San Francisco without loving it
EW's Nominated for Nothing returns to highlight last year's best movies snubbed by the Oscars.
They’re destined to score zero Academy Awards, but they won our hearts throughout 2019. Ahead of Sunday’s 92nd Oscars ceremony, EW is breaking down the year’s best movies, performances, and directorial achievements that were nominated for nothing.
The film: The debut feature from director Joe Talbot blurs the line between fantasy and reality. The Last Black Man in San Francisco was conceived by Talbot and his lifelong friend Jimmie Fails, who stars as himself and whose real experience provides the basis for the movie’s plot, as an ode to their hometown as it gets swept up in the social and economic transformations of gentrification. Like the real Fails, the fictionalized Jimmie still feels an attachment to the beautiful Victorian house his grandfather had owned in the Fillmore district, even though his parents lost it to richer transplants.
In fact, Jimmie feels such an attachment to the house that he stops by periodically with his best friend Montgomery “Mont” Allen (Jonathan Majors) in order to do repairs, to the annoyed bewilderment of the older white couple that now lives there. But then one day, the couple moves out; the woman’s mother died, initializing an inheritance battle between her and her sister that leaves the house in legal limbo. Jimmie seizes the opportunity for him and Mont to move in. Legally their basis is squatter’s rights, but even more than that Jimmie’s move is based on the fairy-tale logic of destiny and fate: His grandfather didn’t just own the house, Jimmie claims, but built it, and now Jimmie is the one who keeps it up. These newcomers don’t deserve it. One of the movie’s key scenes comes toward the end, when Jimmie overhears two white women talking disparagingly of the city on the bus. “You don’t get to hate San Francisco,” he tells them. “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
But over the course of the movie, Jimmie has to learn some hard truths of his own. “You never really own s—,” his uncle tells him. After all, the only reason Jimmie’s grandfather was able to live in the Fillmore district in the first place was because all the Japanese-Americans who previously dominated the neighborhood were rounded up into internment camps during World War II. But even understanding such eternal truths about America doesn’t make it any easier to watch the city you love disappear before your eyes.
Why it wasn’t nominated: Though it was ultimately released by A24, The Last Black Man in San Francisco was born as a Kickstarter project, which is not a traditional path to the Academy’s good graces; they’re still getting the hang of Netflix, after all. The most famous film person in the movie is San Francisco native Danny Glover, who apparently called Fails directly to express his interest and support for the movie (Glover plays Mont’s Grandpa Allen, whose house the boys live in when they’re not in the Victorian apartment). It is the debut feature film for both Talbot and Fails, and in a year full of remarkable work from both famous actors and famous directors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco was destined to be an awards long-shot.
Nevertheless, The Last Black Man in San Francisco astounds with its cinematography and score. Emile Mosseri’s propulsive, eclectic soundtrack powerfully underscores the film’s haunting and dreamlike vibes. That makes it a perfect complement to Adam Newport-Berra’s cameras, which capture the lived-in reality of San Francisco’s streets and neighborhoods.
Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: Homelessness came to the forefront as an issue facing America in 2019 — especially in California. The still-lingering effects of the foreclosure crisis, combined with the vagaries of urban gentrification, have deprived more and more people of homes in their ancestral neighborhoods, while beautiful houses sit empty as little more than property value deposits for their rich, globe-trotting owners. The Last Black Man in San Francisco spoke to this crisis with an urgency and passion informed by personal experience.
Plus, this is a remarkable debut for both Fails and Talbot. If either or both of them follow through on the potential they demonstrated with their first feature film, that will be even more reason to revisit The Last Black Man in San Francisco in the years to come.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco