Film

Interview: The Last Black Man in San Francisco Filmmakers on Their Personal, Universal Story

“A young man searches for home in the changing city that seems to have left him behind.”

That’s the simple yet wholly accurate plot summary of the feature debut from director Joe Talbot, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a film that is based on a screenplay by Talbot and writer Rob Richert, based on the life story of one of the film’s lead actors, Jimmie Fails. The movie was one of the most talked about and highly regarded works at this year Sundance Film Festival, where it debuted and told the tale of a man named Jimmie whose family had been displaced from their longtime home in San Francisco. (Read Third Coast‘s review here.)

Last Black Man in San Francisco

Image credit Peter Prato / A24

With the help of his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), he occasionally comes back to the home (now occupied by a well-to-do, older white couple) to do some restorative painting and other small repairs to the facade, even though the occupants haven’t approved anything being done. Jimmie’s hope is that one day he can save up enough money to buy the house back, so he wants to maintain its condition in the meantime. And while The Last Black Man in San Francisco is about a great deal more than just this one house, all roads do tend to lead back to it.

Much like many recent films set in nearby Oakland (Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting), this movie addresses such subjects as gentrification and the irony of rich, mostly white buyers moving into a neighborhood because of its hip culture, and then immediately driving out what made the neighborhood interesting in the first place. But the film does this is an almost dreamlike manner, with Jimmie and Montgomery taking a much more emotional position on the changes, almost like they’re mourning the loss of a place. Talbot and Fails previously made a short film in 2017 called American Paradise, which also made quite a splash at Sundance and SXSW, before diving into Last Black Man. We sat down with the pair recently, just before the film opened last Friday in Chicago. Enjoy our conversation…

Where did this come from? Whose story is this, because it feels incredibly personal…

Joe Talbot: It started off [from] these conversations that we shared growing up. We would go on these walks—San Francisco is a great walking city, in particular our neighborhood The Mission and Bernal Heights, those were our stomping grounds. And we would just walk around and talk about our lives, and at one point Jimmie shared with me this story of how he grew up in this house and how he lost it. It was really informal, but through sharing stories…and we also made films together in high school—they were really bad [laughs]. The stills are fine, but those films will never surface. Jimmie was really good in front of the camera, so we started talking about turning this story in to a movie informally.

Then maybe five years ago, more officially, we shot a concept trailer because we had no idea how movies got made, not features, so that trailer was put on line and became a calling card, and people started writing us and saying they wanted to help us make it. So we cobbled this team of what felt like the last artists in the Bay Area, and they spent the last years developing it with us, taking the story and it was like this process of writing out loud. We then got it into fighting shape and brought it to Plan B and they brought in A24. But for a long time, it was just a bunch of us in a room, having each others’ shoulders to lean on because it was hard and lonely being in film in the Bay Area, especially in San Francisco. We didn’t know that many people, we were living in my parents house, so it seems a little surreal now. There were so many moments where this felt impossible.

Jimmie Fails: To answer your question, it was a collaboration, but it was inspired by my life story. But a lot of people came on and helped to develop the story to make it was it was.

It feels so personal, but is it also indicative of what’s happening to a lot of people in the Bay Area?

JF: That’s exactly it: personal and universal. I think a lot of the personal details ended up making it universal, maybe not purposefully, but they ended up being that way. So there wasn’t a process of saying “This is really personal; let’s change it to make it universal.” We just had a story we were creating.

JT: Even the parts we weren’t anticipating, like the vulnerability of friendship…

JF: Yeah, exactly. People are bringing new things up all the time at Q&As that we didn’t even notice we were doing.

JT: The one thing that is consistent is being said that it’s nice to see men be vulnerable, and I don’t think we had a conversation where we said, “The characters should be more vulnerable.” It just came from who Jimmie is and who Jonathan is as a person and brought to Montgomery. Even the characters outside, it’s not always easy to find men—even non-actors—who want to take on a role like Kofi [played by Jamal Trulove] because we haven’t seen a lot of characters like that. I think people fear that that complexity will be read as the very thing that the characters fear within the movie. Yet Jamal really leaned into that, having never acted in this way before because I think he understood the power of showing multiple sides of someone we only see one side of usually.

You mentioned the audience reactions. Have you learned things about the movie that you didn’t even know were there from audiences or critics since Sundance?

JF: Oh, man. There have been so many; it’s a blur [laughs]. The vulnerability is a big one. There was a younger high school kid yesterday who asked me why I left my friend if we were so close at the end. It’s not a theme, but it is significant. If you feel like you have nowhere to go, you have to start your legacy somewhere else. If you don’t own anything and your friend does, he still has that tie to the city. You can’t just drag him along on your adventure. I think I just gave away the ending [laughs].

JT: One thing that’s been surprising and warming in some ways is seeing how resonant the film is outside of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

There are places like this in Chicago, for sure.

JT: That’s what I’ve been hearing, talking to people last night. It could have been anywhere, with everything we’re saying about the importance of ownership. There are certain things that feel inherent to this film, so we didn’t discuss them because it was understood, but home itself, that feeling, as universal as it is, still surprised me because it is so specific. There’s Naked Man, there’s the old Muni bus that we fought to get instead of a new one, there are all of these San Francisco details, so it’s interesting to see how many people still connect with that feeling of “Our homes are changing, our cities that we’ve bled for and love are feeling more and more unrecognizable.” So the friendships we have with each other and people in our community are sometimes the only thing making the fight worth having.

I couldn’t shake the feeling with your character that he’s like an American refugee. He doesn’t have a home of his own, so leaving is like going to find this new home. Even people who don’t live in this country would be able to identify with that.

JF: Wow, I’d never thought of it that way, but you’re right. That’s crazy.

More than most other U.S. cities, San Francisco’s history is right there in its architecture, and the idea of that going away or being taken over is heartbreaking.

JT: That feeling specifically, there’s a line in the film where someone says, “It’s a city of facades.” Even when you walk down the street, it has the appearance of being retained, but when you peak inside the windows… We were just doing this the other day; we saw this really cool exterior and we looked inside and it was completely gutted and had Ikea furniture. Just an open space with no details left. It feels like an Airbnb or something.

It probably is. I wanted to ask about the relationship between Jimmie and Montgomery: is that reflective of the relationship between you two, or did you want to keep it separate so you could craft it a bit to make it more cinematic?

JF: That’s a great question, and people do ask about that. The only way that me and Mont’s relationship is influenced by ours [Fails and Talbot] is the vulnerability that we show each other. When we met Jonathan, it was like we knew him for years. Me and Jonathan are now friends; I just had breakfast with him yesterday morning in Atlanta, because he’s filming there. What you see is just me and Jonathan on camera. I talk to him almost everyday.

JT: There was a person named Prentice who we met that inspired the character in the script initially, and after various revisions, it got to Jonathan and he took it to a whole other level.

San Francisco feels like a place that was built by artists and other creative types, all of whom are being pushed out, and I wonder where they go. There have been a few films in the last couple of years about Oakland and the similar situation it is in. Where do they land?

JT: Historically, the artists who made the best San Francisco art in music or film are not from there. Coppola, Janice Joplin, Grace Slick—it’s like a city that brought all of these great artists to it, these bohemians, yet what is happening now is quite different. No young poet is going to San Francisco; you’d have to be a maniac. You’d be sleeping in front of the houses that the Grateful Dead lived in. So the onus is on the natives, those of us who can afford to live in our parents houses, we’re the only ones making the art. For us, it was like we have to tell the story about San Francisco because I don’t think anyone else will.

I want to ask about the Greek Chorus that stands outside Grandpa Allen’s [Danny Glover] house. They are so funny but they are also responsible for one of the single most moving and unexpected moments in the film. Talk about piecing that group together and what are they based upon?

JT: All of those guys are San Francisco natives, and some of them are people we grew up with, so a lot of it is wanting to capture them and their great individual spirits. Like Jordan, he is just always roasting; he is one of the quickest dudes we know, so those aren’t written lines. We just said, “Jordan, talk shit for a little while.” They all feel like these great San Franciscans in their own right. Also, that scene that you’re talking about, it was amazing to watch people we grew up with have this big camera in their face, all these crew members around—it’s a hard thing to remain natural and to keep in touch with the things that made them so interesting, both in growing and wanting to put them in this film. It speaks to the talent in San Francisco, waiting to be discovered. These guys had never done this, and they were cool under fire in these very stressful conditions, filming this movie, and we were moving really fast. I’m really proud of those dudes, and I hope this is the first opportunity of many for, you know, Jordan to talk shit.

What do you want people thinking about when they walk out of this movie?

JF: If you’re being gentrified, think about what you love about your city, what you don’t want to lose about your city. And if you’re the one gentrifying, I want you to know that there are people there and know about what came before you, so that you can know what you’re pushing out.

The whole reason you’re moving in is the thing you’re pushing out.

JF: That’s exactly it.

JT: Something to that same effect. The movies that made me want to make movies changed the way I felt when I left the theater about things I thought I was familiar with, or they honored something that I hadn’t been able to articulate. I hope that people that are going through something similar that they find some inspiration, even though the ending might not be a happy one. I feel encouraged by the conversations that we’re having, even down to when we had our premiere and the screenings since in San Francisco and Oakland, people aren’t leaving the lobbies after the movie because they want to talk.

Just having conversations and sharing stories, people coming together, there aren’t that many spaces in the Bay Area anymore where people can get to spend time with each other. We’re always on our phones. Even on Muni, the public transportation system, used to be the melting pot where all these different people would talk, and you’d meet people you might not otherwise, now everyone is too buried in their phones to initiate conversation. So it’s been exciting to see people talking; I hope that can continue. And I hope that people going through what Jimmie’s character is can feel seen.

Best of luck to you both.

JT: Thank you.

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