The surrealistic verve of The Last Black Man in San Francisco often makes the film feel as if it exists apart from time and reality. But perhaps no facet of Joe Talbot’s film cuts against the grain of the present political climate than the form of its nostalgia. In a time where politicians on the right are weaponizing a rose-colored view of America’s past in order to rouse action in support of a whiter, more homogenous country, Talbot and co-writer/star Jimmie Fails’s story pines for a truly diverse, pluralistic society in San Francisco.
Fails and Talbot, who sports a San Francisco Giants ballcap that’s been seemingly surgically attached to his head, live and breathe their city, even as its dominant tech industry is wiping away its offbeat charms and majesty. Fails’s painfully personal biography is the backbone of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and it connects to a larger history of San Francisco. Gentrification moves beyond serving as just an empty thematic buzzword and emerges as a process that takes tangible effects in its characters. As Fails, playing a version of himself, attempts to reclaim an old Victorian home built by his grandfather, he must directly confront the social and economic forces leading to his own obsolescence in the city that made him.
I chatted with Talbot and Fails about their creative partnership over coffee in New York—and, ironically enough, at a venue in a part of town that the Urban Displacement Project classifies as having fallen victim to “super gentrification.” Our conversation began with a discussion about their early work together in scrappy short films and closed with a talk about how they hope to encourage public dialogue about gentrification in the future.
Was the 2017 short film American Paradise your first collaboration together?
Joe Talbot: No, actually, we made movies together since high school. One of our first movies was called Last Stop Livermore.
Was American Paradise a proof of concept for The Last Black Man in San Francisco at all? Or just trying to level up a bit?
JT: We did a concept trailer for Last Black Man five years ago that was closer to proof of concept for this. It was essentially Jimmie skateboarding through the city. I’m hanging out of my little brother’s car filming it, very funky, and he’s skating and telling his story that inspired the film. That was the first thing we did. Jimmie’s wearing the beanie and red plaid shirt [an outfit he wears throughout the feature]. We put it online not expecting anything to happen. We’d never done anything big like this before. But we started getting emails from people who wanted to join and help us. They became a part of our film family, and as we developed Last Black Man over the next few years, basically learning how to write a script together, because we’d never done anything like that, and we had an opportunity to do a short film that eventually became American Paradise. In American Paradise, even though Jimmie’s character bookends it, it was a completely different story for us. It was a chance for us to come together and make something en route to making the feature.
So, like a ride with training wheels beforehand?
JT: A little bit, yeah! I had never been on a set. Part of it was that I knew I was gonna fuck up in some ways, so I wanted to lessen the chance of that.
You mentioned there being a long tracking shot in the trailer, and a lot of those shots made it into the feature. Is that something you always envisioned as a key part of telling Jimmie’s story?
JT: Yeah, I think the city lends itself to them in some ways. Obviously, it’s a beautiful city, a place you keep falling back in love with, but it’s a place we’re very critical of and have a lot of problems with. That’s part of the ambivalent relationship we have with the city.
Jimmie Fails: At the time that he did it, I thought it was very well put together. He edited and scored it himself. It makes sense why people reached out when they saw it. He did a good job.
At what point did Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company, come on board to help fund the film?
JT: Much later.
JF: Took a while! [laughs]
JT: Me, Jimmie, Khaliah, and a group of other people who saw that concept trailer became our film family. We spent these years working on it together. Then, Plan B saw our work, read the script, and we spent a little more time further developing it with them. They came on to produce it and went to A24 to finance it.
Did that change the scope at all or what you thought would be possible?
JF: We had big dreams! We can shoot it on Technicolor, we can shoot it on film—it could have cost $100 million. But we’re first-time filmmakers, so what the fuck do we know?
JT: It was an ambitious movie. And even finally getting a budget, it still required us to call in favors left and right, and a lifetime’s worth of experiences in San Francisco. It still felt in a way like a bigger version of the movies we made as teens, just with more people and more cameras. Like outdoing the same thing you’ve done for a long time.
JF: Pretty much, just more professionally.
How did you all come to determine the visual or tonal language for the film? It seems like the story came first since it has such personal roots, but was the poetic and surreal nature of the project always evident?
JF: I think that just speaks to our imaginations as people. We always try to make the best stuff kind of dreamy. Ghost World was a big influence. I think that’s important to tell that personal story, and it came first. But especially me, because it’s so personal to me, I don’t want to shove a personal story down someone’s throat without making it more magical or poetic.
JT: When Jimmie first told me the stories about his life, he always did it in that way. It always felt like he had some unique outsider’s context in the way he told it. I think he’s just naturally a really good storyteller. It was as much about the stories as the way he told them. And then, on top of that, he could take something that was true and then we could imagine. Mike Epps’s character was based on someone in Jimmie’s life, but it was funny to imagine someone who drove off with your car and coming back to pick Jimmie up. It was funny to think about Mike Epps driving around and not acknowledging that. That’s fucking funny, and Mike Epps is hilarious! A lot of it was starting with something real and then going off into our imaginations as to what we thought would be fun to watch.
I know that this project is an intense collaboration between the two of you, but Joe, as a white man conveying a very black story and history, was your job just to learn as much as you could from Jimmie and the community to be a faithful steward?
JF: I’m just gonna chime in. That’s the problem with change in San Francisco. We grew up in the same neighborhood, so we were around a lot of the same people. It was very diverse. There [were] white, black, Latino kids. Obviously, our experiences are different: His parents are white, and my family is black. He was around. It wasn’t like he had to come in and study the black community. He was already there. A lot of his friends were black. We all knew about everyone’s culture growing up in San Francisco, but not so much anymore because it’s changed so much. He’s also very well educated on San Francisco. His dad wrote a book called Season of the Witch that tells a lot of the black history that is important and central to San Francisco. He’s telling his friend’s story, and he’s black. I totally get the question, but we’ve known each other for so long that I can’t imagine anyone else telling the story.
JT: Yeah, I think that this story for us, everything we’ve made has come out of our conversations. This felt like an extension of that. That’s part of how this naturally unfolded. Had I come into a different situation, I might not be the right person to make that film. I think there are other films in San Francisco from other people in other experiences, and I’m certainly not the person to make [them] despite being a lifelong San Franciscan. Even then, it starts with us, but it’s also about the other people who are involved in the project. One of the first people to become involved, Khaliah Neal, is an East Oakland native who cut her teeth in New York producing. This was her first big leap into independent filmmaking as a lead producer, and she became our producing partner like Jimmie was my creative partner. I think that collaboration was really important because I’m a white guy, and even though we had grown up together, as many voices in the room helps in getting to a deeper truth. That way it’s not all on Jimmie, it’s on us as a group. And not even just in terms of race, some of our closest collaborators aren’t from San Francisco at all, so they don’t know the nuances of the shit we saw growing up. They don’t know what a candy house is necessarily. We see San Francisco in one way, with a very specific kind of love, but bringing in people who don’t know as much about San Francisco is important in telling a story that is going to exist outside it.
I was really struck by the “this guy fucks” moment, a reference to Silicon Valley, when Jimmie’s character sits next to a naked guy on a bench and watches a trolley full of tech bros chant the quote from the show. What inspired this scene and led you to put it in the movie?
JF: It’s supposed to speak to me coming from my dad’s house, which is a rough moment. He doesn’t respond how I wanted when I break the news that I’m back in the house. I think it’s representative of old San Francisco and new San Francisco meeting. Obviously, I’m unfazed by the naked guy because I see that all the time. I relate to him more than all the “this guy fucks” cable car. Visually, it’s old meets new. They’re listening to a newer version of “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane. They’re on a cable car on wheels, which is a contradiction. It just goes to show that the people in San Francisco don’t pass judgement, really. You meet so many different people.
Is this a nostalgic film?
JF: Yeah. We’re nostalgic people. [laughs] That would have come through either way because we just go through life that way. I’m pretty sure any film he makes would be a little nostalgic.
What role should looking back at the city’s history play as it looks forward to the future?
JF: All I want is for friendships like ours to be able to exist, and that doesn’t exist in the new San Francisco. That’s really what it’s about, getting back to that point where artists and outsiders can live there. Where weirdos who didn’t feel accepted could come because that’s what it used to be about. That’s the best San Francisco in my eyes.
Now that this project has made you all cult heroes in the city, how do you view your role in the ongoing conversation about the future of San Francisco? Activists? Storytellers? Artists? Something else entirely?
JF: I think a little bit of all of that. I think you definitely want to speak out if you can and let the voice be heard. But we’re artists first and foremost. Let our art create that conversation where there can be activism. Start the dialogue. I’m going to be in contact with Danny [Glover, who co-stars in the film].
JT: Danny is a hero to us in San Francisco, because not only is he an actor who’s been in important work, but he was an activist in the city before that. We grew up on the stories of his activism. Those two things feel like San Francisco the best: art and politics. With someone like him, you look up to him and hope you can carry on, in some very small way, the tradition that he set forward.
There’s been quite a Bay Area Renaissance recently: Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, now The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Do either of you have theories about why this is all coming to pass now?
JF: Well, those are both Oakland movies. It’s about the same sort of thing, but they’re both Oakland, which is extremely different even though it’s across the water. Hopefully somebody else makes something else so we can have two.
JT: And Fruitvale Station. It’s always Oakland!
JF: Then they got Kicks too.
JT: Kicks and Licks. It speaks to how Oakland is a place that’s always birthed incredible talent. Boots Riley, long before that, recorded music in the Bay. Oakland has a really incredible history artistically. For us, it’s really cool to see that happen across the water, but like Jimmie said, San Francisco has a different history and a different relationship to gentrification as it exists now. We feel it in different ways than they do in Oakland. I think this movie is us trying to wrestle with our own situation.