“The Last Black Man In San Francisco” (2019) is a remarkable film that deserves your attention. It’s one of the richest experiences I’ve had watching a film in a while. There’s something exhilarating in seeing something new in cinema, and director Joe Talbot is a refreshing new voice. Jimmie Fails (playing a fictionalized version of himself) longs to retrieve the stately Victorian home his grandfather built in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. In his pursuit, he’s joined by his best friend Mont who is an aspiring playwright. The film unfolds like a dream which is appropriate since Jimmie’s aspirations might be a bit delusional. The fact that Mont is a scribe adds a layer of theatricality that makes us aware of the act of creation unfolding in front of us. Their relationship made me think of Don Quixote and his faithful companion Sancho Panza. Like Quixote, Jimmie is able to create a reality of his own, and it can affect others as well as himself.
Jimmie works at a nursing home and doesn’t have a home. He stays at Mont’s grandfather’s house. Diligently he stops at the Victorian home, now occupied by a white couple. He retouches the paint and chastises them for not keeping up with the garden. One day, when the couple moves out, Jimmie sneaks in – and brings in Mort as well as his old family furniture.
We can all relate to the basic theme of this movie that we all need a place to call our own – for us to have a home. Yes, that’s what Jimmie ultimately wants. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” also works as a valentine to the city where it takes place. Talbot and his cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra conjure up a gorgeous cinematic city by the bay. And the friendship at the heart of the film also makes it relatable and a strong leitmotif for us to latch on to. All of the above is ascertained and enjoyed on a surface evaluation of this fantastically ambitious film. But Talbot and Jimmie Fails – are dealing with richer and complex themes including how gentrification has adversely affected black America. “This is the edge – the final frontier of Manifest Destiny,” says Jimmie.
There are some facts that are worth knowing beforehand to get a fuller understanding of the ambitions of this film. I applaud the creators for not being didactic. The Victorian is situated in Bayview-Hunters Point – a peninsula in the San Francisco Bay. Shipbuilding was integral to this area. During the Great Migration, there was a huge influx of African American workers. For decades, the Navy maintained a shipyard there on which it studied radiation and decontaminated ships exposed to atomic testing. By the 1960s, the Bayview and Hunters Point neighborhoods were populated predominantly by African-Americans and other racial minorities, and the area was isolated from the rest of San Francisco. Pollution, substandard housing, declining infrastructure, and racial discrimination were notable problems. James Baldwin documented all of this in a 1963 documentary, “Take This Hammer”, stating, “this is the San Francisco America pretends does not exist.” Once considered a historic African American district, the percentage of black people in the Bayview–Hunters Point population declined from 65 percent in 1990 to a minority in 2000.
All of what I just mentioned is “hinted” at – but in a lyrical way in this thought-provoking film. Make believe and theatre are big components and the director has used them in the way he tells this tale – from his composition which may remind you of Wes Anderson to the usage of a Greek Chorus.
This is a fascinating film.
Jimmie: “Fight for your land, fight for your home.”
Available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu and Google Play.
Story by Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot. Developed for the screen with the assistance of Emma Nicholls and Fritzi Adelman.
Directed by Joe Talbot
Starring: Jonathan Majors, Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan, Mike Epps, Finn Wittrock and Danny Glover
Jimmy Fails’ Story
In A24’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” actor Jimmie Fails stars as Jimmie Fails who, like him, is a 20-something black man whose grandfather once owned a Victorian home in the rapidly gentrifying Fillmore District. Fails wrote the script with Rob Reichert and director Joe Talbot, and it’s easy to see it as a story about racism and the rapid-fire cultural displacement that has come to identify the Bay Area. While all of that may be true, Fails said it also misses the precise point: It’s actually more a story about family, the fleeting nature of love and happiness, and fighting to find one’s place in an evolving world. “When I lost my house, which is what happens in the movie, it wasn’t at all because of gentrification,” Fails said. “It is about San Francisco changing, but that’s not what we set out to make a film about.” In the film, Fails teams with his eccentric best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) in an attempt to reclaim the home his grandfather built in the heart of San Francisco. With a single-minded focus that blinds him to the reality of his situation, Fails struggles to reconnect with his family and construct a community. As they search for belonging in a changing city that seems to have left them behind, they embark on a nostalgic journey inhabited by skaters, squatters, street preachers, and other marginalized locals. In reality, Fails’ grandfather bought a Victorian home when the Fillmore District was a middle-class black neighborhood. When Fails was in elementary school, his grandfather died and his family fell into a financial crisis that led to foreclosure, eviction, and further personal disasters. “The eviction was life changing for me, and I feel like I haven’t had much of a family since then,” Fails said. “It’s like we all just kind of fractured and went our own separate ways.” However, Talbot has been something of a constant in Fails’ life as both a friend and creative compatriot. Friends since childhood, their first project was the short film “American Paradise,” which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Fails said they started talking about “Last Black Man” even before that. “We would just talk about how the city was changing and how we both felt like outcasts,” Fails said. He eventually shared the story of his grandfather losing his house with Talbot. “At first, it was kind of like a joke, because we hadn’t really considered making a movie out of it,” he said. “But then the more we talked, the more strongly we felt about the possibility.” Fails knows that, to some, theirs might seem like an unlikely friendship. “People see us, and because I’m this tall, sort of buff black dude, and Joe’s a slimmer, shorter white guy, they think it’s weird that we’re close,” said the 24-year-old Fails. “Not that I don’t see color, but, we’ve been friends for something like 15 years now, and I wouldn’t trust anyone else with my story.” (IndieWire)
Bringing The Last Black Man in San Francisco to the Screen
“…The Last Black Man in San Francisco is based on a true story. It’s about Jimmie Fails, played by Fails himself, a young black man in the titular city who grew up with his father in a beautiful Victorian home built, according to family lore, by Fails’s grandfather, also named Jimmie. When the neighborhood got too expensive, the real Jimmie and his father were displaced, moving to shelters and housing projects. They lived in their car for a spell; Jimmie also did a stint in a group home. “It’s hard when it’s all such a personal story,” Fails said…“But people were helping me get through the tough times when I felt like I didn’t want to do it.” It’s the kind of movie one could only make with their best friend. Director Joe Talbot and Fails met as kids, bonding over their shared San Francisco lineage, movies, music, and skating. Talbot, who dropped out of high school, was also into moviemaking and always turning the camera on Fails, who, it turned out, had a natural well of charisma and acting talent. It’s Talbot’s first major feature and Fails’ first time carrying a film. The actor honed his craft by working closely with his co-star Majors, a classically trained Yale grad who had breakout roles in films like White Boy Rick and TV series like When We Rise. They lived together in a hotel in the Tenderloin, each alternating between sleeping on the floor and the bed, like their characters do. Majors would explain technical script terms to Fails over breakfast; Fails would tell Majors about Prentice, the man on whom his character is based. “I think we were actually brothers in some world,” Majors said in a separate phone interview. The road to the film’s Friday release began five years ago. Talbot had a habit of telling Falls that his life could be a movie—but the idea really took root when the director made a concept trailer about Fails, posting it online as a calling card and using it to raise funds on Kickstarter. Though the film is Fails’s personal story, it’s also about gentrification in San Francisco writ large. The city has become one of, if not the most, expensive in the U.S., and has for decades been squeezing out the black residents who lived there for generations. After releasing the concept trailer, Talbot said, “we started getting these letters from people saying they wanted to help.” (Vanity Fair)
The Making of The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Talbot, who can rattle off civic trivia with the ease of an unofficial San Francisco historian, knows that some viewers might have doubts about his ability to tell this particular story because he is white himself. He doesn’t blame them, but Fails stepped in to defend the filmmaker. “A lot of people have a misconception of Joe trying to tell a black story, but that’s not what it is,” Fails said. “He’s telling his friend’s story, and I just happen to be black.” Majors agreed. “A good storyteller is one who can, without judgment, hold the mirror up to nature and then highlight the parts of nature that correlate to the experience he or she wants the audience to have—and Joe Talbot has that ability,” he said. It helps, though, that there were other black San Francisco natives working on the film, both in front of and behind the camera. Danny Glover, a proud son of the city, was moved enough by the story to join the cast—after much calling and letter writing from Talbot—and play Montgomery’s blind grandfather, Allen. Khaliah Neal, a Bay Area native, joined early on as a producer. The four men who play the film’s Greek chorus are all locals; one in particular, Jamal Trulove, made headlines in March when he won a $13.1 million settlement after being framed by the police for murder and wrongfully spending more than six years in prison. (Talbot said Trulove used some of that money to fly out Last Black Man crew members to Sundance earlier this year.) “It was like all these people trying to help raise this child of a movie,” Talbot said.” (Vanity Fair)
About Director Joe Talbot
Joe Talbot is a fifth-generation San Franciscan who began developing The Last Black Man in San Francisco with childhood friend and star Jimmie Fails after leaving high school early to pursue film. He is a Sundance Institute fellow and wrote and directed the acclaimed short “American Paradise,” which was shown at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is his feature-length debut. (https://collab.sundance.org/)