Opera Meets Film: How ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ Frames & Contextualizes Major Themes & Relationships in ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment takes a look at “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” tells the story of Jimmie and Mont, two friends hellbent on recovering a house that was built by Jimmie’s grandfather half a century ago. Jimmie and Mont live on the outskirts of San Francisco, a purgatory full of pollution and no seeming future for either of them. But this home, located in the heart of San Francisco is an opportunity for them to regain the respectability that Jimmie’s family once lost.

The problem is, as the film ultimately reveals (MAJOR SPOILER), the house was never built by his grandfather. It was all a story he created to give him hope of a better future. He wanted to live out his dream.

Performance and storytelling are everywhere in this film, all performed by black males of different walks of life. Mont is a playwright trying to find his voice, which is often diminished by Jimmie’s preponderance in his life. He eventually manages to find that story and use it to counter Jimmie’s own drama, explored throughout the movie. But the film also puts a spotlight on other voices that are often seen but never heard.

The film literally opens with a man in the street speaking to the world about the injustices his people have to endure due to the pollution in the bay. Jimmie and Month sit across the street from him, but would rather leave than listen to him as they wait for a bus that never comes.

And in one key scene, Jimmi walks past an elderly man in the street singing “O mio babbino caro” in his low voice. The piece subtly leads us into the next scene where Jimmie will meet his father, who sells bootlegged movies and was the one to manufacture the lie that dominates Jimmie’s life. The camera stays on the elderly man for a good portion of the piece, emphasizing that director Joe Talbot wants us to pay close attention to the piece, even if it is in Italian. To further the importance of the piece in the the narrative storytelling, Talbot actually lingers on the music at the start of the next scene, externalizing the thematic connection rather potently.

In the context of “Gianni Schicchi,” this is the moment when Lauretta confronts her father and begs him to make the all-important decision of helping the family in its swindle by lying. Her happiness can only come through a lie. She wins the argument. The aria preceding (and briefly participating in) the first meeting between Jimmie and his father emphasizes that their conflict will be at the core of the film’s big climax. And once again, the child must beg the father to make an important decision that will alter his or her future. But unlike Gianni Schicchi, full of joy at the prospect of lying, Jimmie’s father gives his son no peace through truth, perpetuating the lie. It’s an ironic and powerful inversion that haunts the two brief meetings between the two characters.

But in the context of the film, it is worth noting that despite Talbot’s emphasis on the street singer, Jimmie pays him no heed and fails to notice his storytelling and need for an audience. This contrasts with another scene later in the film where Mont does stop to listen to a street singer and even engages him to continue his performance. Thus, the film manages a rather complex relationship with the dangers and pleasures of storytelling and performance.


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