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Sundance 2019: The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Clemency

Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is the tale of two friends, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), and a Victorian home in the middle of a highly gentrified neighborhood. Jimmie claims that his grandfather built every part of the home back in the 1940s, and he just wants it back in the family. The house, which he goes so far as to paint when its current owner is not home, is more than just a building to him. It’s a heartbreaking symbol for how the whole city he grew up in has changed, and has devalued the lives of men and women like him. But this emotional set-up for the script, co-written by Fails and Talbot, is only just the foundation for what proves to be a singular, luminous American story.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco” proclaims a next-level brilliance from its opening sequence in which Jimmie and Montgomery speed around San Francisco (Jimmie on his skateboard, Montgomrey sometimes dashing behind him), displaying Talbot's major league precision in color, editing, motion, and music. It gets a true adrenaline from this filmmaking in its first half, going from one visually stunning scene from the next, introducing a wildly new color palette compared to the last. This is the kind of movie that sucks you in with its vision, that begs to be rewatched in order to savor every shot or strange little item in its production design for various living spaces (like the cluttered home of Danny Glover’s supporting character and grandfather to Montgomery). Talbot quickly announces himself as a filmmaker who actively considers everything going on in a frame, and how to define his characters by their surroundings, and the music that accompanies them (a whimsical Joni Mitchell song over the aggressive Greek chorus of men that talk shit outside Grandpa Allen's house is probably the best example). All the while, different tones of storytelling are blended—some beats are extremely funny in their dry manner, others are completely heartbreaking—and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” remains consistently gorgeous and unpredictable.

Talbot doesn’t lean on this energy the entire time: the second half is more subdued, spending more time in the house, while getting to know the men internally. It’s a crucial choice, as the film would've been exhausting if it went the same speed from start to finish, and it helps the movie go inward, detailing the lives of supporting people like Kofi, a member of that Greek chorus who talks shit about Montgomery and Jimmie being "soft." In more tender moments, Talbot's film observes how these men have a friendship that itself is like a peaceful family, a contrast to the lost relationships they have with their own parents. 

A pivotal aspect to this story are Jimmie and Montgomery. They’re two gentle friends who are clearly removed from the aggression that's observed in other black men within this film. They reminded me most of Charlie Brown and Linus from Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” comics: Along with both of them wearing the same clothes almost every day, Majors clings to his red drawing book like Linus does with his blanket, while being the introspective, philosophical one. They both have a boyish innocence that is striking, a very specific artistic choice in their acting and in storytelling that works as an honest expression on the film’s contrasting portrayals of masculinity. 

Talbot displays perhaps his most confidence with his script (co-written by Talbot and Rob Richert), which is simplified to the two men trying to get the house, fill it with themselves, and hold onto it. He wants you to appreciate the magic of the house, the way that light cuts through in different rooms, its ornate detail from start to finish. Even more, he wants you to recognize and love these characters, too. The film's incredible tension comes from watching Jimmie and Montgomery in this gorgeous city—alongside other larger-than-life individuals—and seeing just how much these men do not have a place in it.  

Clemency” is one of the toughest films playing in the Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition this year, but with its tactful and rich world-building for its story about the death penalty, it’s also one of the best. Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu uses calibrated artistry across the board to tell a sensitive story about a prison warden’s very challenging position of power, its performances providing unforgettable faces for those whose lives circle around capital punishment. 

In a stunning opening scene, we see a lethal injection go wrong, requiring different needle placements and horror for those who have been selected to watch. It is not a peaceful route to the desired result. All the while, Alfre Woodard’s Warden Bernadine Williams remains impossibly stoic as she stands over the man. It’s just one moment in which you see the control that she has over this place, a woman caught between a clear pride she has for her work that has elements that continue to wear down on her. Throughout the film, Woodard is brilliant in how she shows a woman who does not easily let her guard down in a job that demands so much of her strong spirit, something that affects her relationship with her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) and can be challenged whenever she interacts with the prisoners that she knows more like a caring teacher than someone just working a job. When Bernadine does reach her breaking point, after later seeing the tragedy of her work, it’s a masterful display of a face failing to beat its repressed emotions, and Chukwu holds on her face for a stunning minute-long close-up. 

But more than just about Warden Williams and the prison she watches over, the story is about a life we see in the headlines: Aldis Hodge’s Anthony Woods, a man sentenced to death for the killing of a cop, which he insists he didn’t do. Hodge carries on the film’s exhilarating ambition to express feelings that are unconscionable outside of a prison cell, like when he silently processes that he is finally about to die after a visit from Woodard’s character and then aims to smash his head against a concrete wall. Later, he helps “Clemency” show the tragedy of men like Anthony, as he gets a glimmer of hope that he might belong to a family, and clings to that fantasy while waiting on a message of clemency from the governor. One of the best supporting turns at Sundance this year, it's an incredible physical and emotional feat. 

Within Chukwu’s impressive work with this material, she populates the story with concrete themes as explored by side characters who revolve around Warden Williams, and fill in the world of “Clemency.” Wendell helps paint a sense of the sometimes silly, but conflicted home that Warden Williams can return to, and has a striking moment in which he quotes Invisible Man to his high school students, while Chukwu shows us glimpses of listening faces. Anthony’s lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff), brings a tenderness to the job as another person who cares about Anthony, providing a friendship to him as much as hope of saving his life. And Michael O’Neill, as Chaplain Kendricks, offers a sense of the spiritual peace that comes with such a job, as if a lifeline for Warden Williams as someone who has also seen the same horrific things that she does on a daily basis. Chukwu unites these characters, vivid and excellent roles for each of these actors, under the theme of finality—all of them proclaim to Warden Williams that they want to retire, as if they have reached their own end with being in the same world as capital punishment. 

“Clemency” is that little miracle of filmmaking, a story that answers to unthinkable tonal and narrative challenges it sets for itself by providing a clear vision. The cinematography by Eric Branco becomes its own life source, finding expressive lighting and framing within the drab setting of a prison, making corridors of cells seem all the more endless. Chukwu's film is further proof that great moviemaking is key to bringing audiences into profound, somber head spaces and places of employment. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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