Arts & Entertainment

‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ charts friendship and gentrification

By June 4, 2019 No Comments
Jonathan Majors, left, and Jimmie Fails as best friends Montgomery and Jimmie in "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," which opens at Bay Area theaters on June 7. (Photo courtesy of A24)

Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails met when they were kids. Both native San Franciscans, they were four years apart in age and from disparate backgrounds.

Talbot, the son of journalist and “Salon” e-magazine founder David Talbot and writer Camille Peri, lived with his parents and his younger brother, Nat, in a home near Precita Park, where his creative impulses, whether to make music or movies, was encouraged.

Fails’ family lost their Fillmore District home when Jimmie was 6. He was living in a Mission District housing project when he made his new friend. Despite their differences, the two boys become inseparable, wandering over the hills of Bernal Heights for hours talking about anything and everything.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” opening at Bay Area theaters on Friday, June 7, directed and co-written by Talbot and starring and inspired by Fails, springs from those endless conversations.

“I was 15 or 16, 16,” Fails, 24, recalls of the first time he told Talbot about his family’s house. “I just remember we were walking up Alabama Street, walking up the hill, back to his house or something. … ‘Oh dude, that’s really compelling.’ I remember Joe was super interested in the story. I don’t remember how I ended up talking about it. Then we were both like, ‘(Let’s) make a movie about it.’ It was literally a joke and then it was not a joke. It was a joke and then it became an idea.”

From that initial story of loss, Talbot and co-writer Rob Richert, have sprung a tale wrapped up in San Francisco’s loss of much of its African-American population, a process that started with redevelopment schemes dating back to the 1960s, and with the city’s current ovewhelming gentrification.

It is the story of the unshakeable friendship between Jimmie and his best friend Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), not so unlike the friendship between Fails and Talbot.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is also a valentine to San Francisco wrapped up in the tale of Jimmie’s attempt to reclaim his family’s home, a stately Queen Anne Victorian he insists was built by his grandfather in the years after World War II.

Along with the house (not Fails’ real former home, but a stunning home on South Van Ness in the Mission), San Francisco’s neighborhoods, local characters like opera singing busker Tim Blevins and landmarks like Golden Gate Park’s Beach Chalet, are woven into the fabric of a story of a city that for many is disappearing from view.

“It’s sad how common (Jimmie’s) story is now,” says Talbot, 28. “I want people to take away different things from it. I think they might naturally, because if you grew up here and you have a personal connection to home and to a place, you’ve seen naked men walk down the street, you’ve seen a close family relative who’s like a wonderful San Franciscan in their own right — like Wanda, Jimmie’s aunt in the film — but can’t afford to stay here, be pushed out, I think it becomes very personal.”

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” walks a tightrope between drama and comedy. It is sometimes surreal and always kinetic, thanks to Jimmie’s penchant for using his skateboard as a main form of transportation, sometimes even sharing his ride with Montgomery.

The camera races behind Jimmie as he thunders down hills or across Hunters Point and the Tenderloin. In one vertiginous scene shot from a distance, his small figure hurtles down the steepest part of Powell Street next to the cable car tracks.

Skating is one facet of Fails’ real life that was bound to be essential to his movie self.

“My noble steed,” Fails says. “It’s a way to enter other neighborhoods, through skateboarding. You can get places quicker than on public transportation sometimes. It helps you get to different neighborhoods and meet different people, other skaters and whatever. I always feel like the world in motion is better. Skateboarding is motion. Motion pictures, people love those, right?”

“It’s beautiful, it’s just beautiful to watch, as someone who doesn’t skate,” adds Talbot. “Every time someone comes by, I just kind of watch.”

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” made its hometown debut to a packed Castro Theatre on May 29.

It made its world premiere in January in Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival to a standing ovation and two festival prizes for Talbot’s direction, as well as a special jury award for the film’s creative collaboration.

The cast and crew of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” strike a pose at the Sundance Film Festival. Writer/director Joe Talbot is pictured at center with cap, and writer/actor Jimmie Fails is third from right. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

In between, in its run-up to its release, the film screened for audiences in New York and Los Angeles, confirming for Talbot that his movie with its particular focus on San Francisco and its gentrification woes resonates far beyond the city limits.

“It is surprising how many people are having the same reactions that people are having here,” he says. “I was sort of taken by that, because the film is so specific.

“I think what we’re feeling right now is a lot of people who are coming in at this moment maybe aren’t coming for the same reasons that people came in past generations, African Americans fleeing the South for opportunities here in the shipyards, gays coming to be someone they couldn’t be elsewhere, hippies,” he adds.

“Now, it feels more like a gold rush and so it attracts a different person here for different reasons. The poets of today are not coming to San Francisco to be Beats, they’re going elsewhere.”