The first movie by San Franciscans Jimmie Fails and his childhood pal Joe Talbot is not strictly a biography (it’s “more than twenty percent autobiographical,” according to Fails in a recent interview with Rolling Stone), but it is transparently a product of their friendship, and the city they love. Fails plays himself in a scenario that is true: there really was a Victorian in San Francisco that belonged to his family decades ago, since owned by someone else, and he was fixated on trying to get it back. In this film (of which Fails has a story credit), when the current owners leave the place vacated because of a dispute with their family members, Jimmie and his philosophical buddy Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) quietly move in. In the film's press notes, Fails aptly calls it "a love story between me and a house."
And yet with Talbot's incredibly promising cinematic eye for tone and pacing, "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" is so much more than just Jimmie's tale. It's also an ensemble piece, imbued with humor and beauty by Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan and Mike Epps, who play peripheral family members with their own places they call home. Talbot gives these characters and others plenty of narrative space in which to exist, and it leads to rich visual storytelling—this is one of those rare movies in which each major sequence could be its own ponderous short film, and here it creates an unforgettable mini-universe of complex, lovely San Franciscans.
Together (along with co-writer Rob Richert), Fails and Talbot have crafted a luminous American story that's as likely to make you laugh hard as it is to break your heart. Its passion, too, is always more layered than you expect: the movie mourns a city that's losing its soul just as intensely as it celebrates a tender friendship. It's sentimental in the most cinematic way, how it answers to frustrations about gentrification with a hug, and treats aggressive characters as the means for a heart-to-heart conversation. It's the first feature project for either Fails and Talbot (having previously collaborated on the 2017 short, "American Paradise,") and yet "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" feels like they've been telling this story for decades.
RogerEbert.com sat down with Fails and Talbot to discuss their passion project, Fails’ dreams of one day making a period piece about the Harlem of the West, the moment they found out that Shia LaBeouf was a huge fan and more.
I'll never forget seeing this movie on a Saturday morning at Sundance when it had its world premiere, and how instantaneously people fell in love with it. But what was the psychological experience like for you guys?
JIMMIE FAILS: I don’t know. That was a trip.
JOE TALBOT: A24 told me, “You’re going to have to introduce it,” and I was like, “No one wants to hear me talk. They just want to see the movie,” but they said, “It’s kind of a tradition.” So I finally worked up the courage and I get out there, and I look in the audience and I see Barry Jenkins and Boots Riley, and it’s like, "Oh, God." We finished the movie like four days before Sundance. And in a way, you’re just grinding to get to the end, and you’re trying to put the finishing touches on it, and in some ways you’ve lost perspective at the very end because you’ve watched it 100 times at that point. It’s a weird feeling: you get that first laugh, and your nerves start to come down a little bit. I think part of it too is that we’ve never done anything like this before, so I was too naive to realize how stressed out I should be, because I didn’t even realize everyone starts tweeting as soon as the movie’s done. I think part of it is that ignorance is bliss [laughs]. Or less stress, at least.
Jimmie, what was it like for you?
JF: I was just like, there were moments where … don’t get me wrong, I love the movie that we made but it’s hard for me to watch myself, so I was just kind of like [aggressively squirms in chair].
JF: There’s not even a particular scene, there’s just certain angles of your face where you see … you know what I mean? You’re just like, “Ahh, shit.” But nonetheless the reception we got after was like, there were cute old ladies coming up to me wanting to take a picture, but couldn’t take the picture because they were crying still. That means more to me than anything. It was cool to see that you did something that made people feel something, and that they responded to a story that’s so personal. That was the victory for me.
JT: It was as relieving as it was rewarding in some ways. You never forget the first few responses like, you can’t tell if they’re totally outliers and they’re crazy yet, but they made you feel like, “Oh, we really made a film.” There’s a teenage girl—she was like 15 and she’s there with her best friend, and they clearly made this trek to Sundance, their first Sundance, and I remember being that age and seeing movies that affected me like “Ghost World” and "Do the Right Thing." She was just bawling. I started getting teary and then Jamal Trulove, who plays Kofi, started getting teary. It was this domino of tears, it was like, that feeling of when you’re so impressionable that a movie can make you really feel, that felt really special to see someone having that.
And that you gave it to them.
JT: Well, you dream of having that. One of the best things, at the last Q&A at Sundance, this guy gets up in the back and he goes, “Un-f**king real, best movie of the year. Wow. Can’t believe it, like, it’s an honor.” And he sits down and Jimmie goes, “Thank you … Shia LaBeouf?”
JF: I was like, “What the fuck?”
JT: Shia came up with his mom and she was like, “Oh, well we loved your movie,” and Shia’s like, “MOM! These are the guys!”
JF: He’s like, “This is him right here!” I walked up to him and I was like, “What’s up, Shia?” And he was like [claps his hand, makes aggressive hugging gesture]. Alright, shit. Alright. [laughs]
I know that you guys have been working on this movie since 2014, and I dug up the video from back then of you two promoting the project on Kickstarter, riding a tandem bike. It’s a beautiful short.
JF: “I’m Jimmie Fails!”
JT: That bike broke so many times. We kept taking it back to the bike place. They were like, “Are you guys f**king idiots? It’s not that hard to ride a tandem bike.” And it wasn’t Jimmie, it was me, I have a hard time pedaling. Clearly he and Mont are much better than that in the film. But, that was fun to do, actually. We had slowed down traffic actually, going through Golden Gate Park …
JF: Yeah, I remember that.
JT: There’s just a line of cars like a funeral procession behind us.
JF: People just like, BEEP BEEP!
How many times during the process of making “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” did it feel like it wasn’t going to happen?
JT: Once a week.
JF: Yeah. Probably more than once a week. It was just … you always gotta reward yourself on the little victories along the way. And it’s also just the people that surround you. We had good people on this. I think that was the main thing. Good people—his parents had given us the space, we lived at his parents’ house when we were working on it. It was always, “At least we have this security.” They were very supportive, too. They’re still very supportive. We already get press breaks sent to me from A24, but they fucking send us articles and email them and we’re like, “Yo, we got this already, thank you. Love you guys.” They’re journalists, though.
JT: They’re faster than A24, they get the breaks. I think my dad just keeps hitting “Refresh” every five minutes. [laughs] But it’s exactly like Jimmie said—we cobbled together this team by the time we had a Kickstarter, and not only was it like the thing that got us being able to develop it together, and prove the script as a team, and not just be isolated off in a room writing which I would have found really depressing, it was also like ... you get those “No’s,” and rather than going home alone and crying in your pillow, I cry on his shoulder. And we’re all there rallying, and I think over the years these people who had initially reached out who saw our Kickstarter or the concept trailer, became like our best friends in the world. They’re family now, they’re over at my house when I’m not there, kind of thing.
JF: Now I know why the saying “blood, sweat, and tears” exists. That actually was put into this. Actually bled. All of these people we met, we’re just there. That’s important, especially for this film—it’s the only way it’s going to happen. You can’t just have actors acting across from each other. That wouldn’t have worked. It was like an actual family. Even the crew. They made it comfortable for me to be able to do it.
JT: I think we cobbled together a group that was like, the last artists in San Francisco. They took it personally and made it their own. It was one of the last places people could congregate as artists.
I watched a Variety interview from Sundance featuring you guys, Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan and Jonathan Majors. I was struck by how Jonathan described the set as “gentle.” How did you guys go about achieving that?
JF: That’s the first thing he said about the script when he got it and read for the part. That was like, moving forward, and the changes that happen in the script, that’s all in the back of your mind. You want to have that tenderness moving forward. Because there are movies like ... Oakland has a lot of movies about gentrification that are a little more angry—not that you don’t feel that way about gentrification, of course we’re angry. But that’s Oakland. That’s the difference between us and Oakland. As a San Franciscan, we’re just approaching it in a different way, or we just wanted to. That’s just the type of people we are. I think that was important to do that, because it’s just a different way to come at it, because you’re not really holding anyone, you’re just not coming at anyone aggressively. We’re not coming at gentrifiers aggressively, we’re just trying to educate you on who you’re pushing out and what you’re pushing out, and how you’re changing the city, as opposed to being like, “F**k you, get the f**k out!”
JT: That love and that empathy I think does come from the fabric of San Francisco that we grew up in, and you see it in movies like “Harold & Maude.” That movie has no bad characters, it treats everyone with complexity and love. It also comes at the Bay Area from a different angle, it’s not the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s like San Bruno, it’s the weird kind of, what you think are the less attractive outskirts of the city, that it uses and props up in these beautiful ways, that was an inspiration both in how to lead with hopefully what felt like more empathy for everyone, but also with how to render the side of San Francisco that we grew up in, and give it the cinematic treatment that’s more given to the Golden Gate Bridge or Fisherman’s Wharf.
Was there ever an angrier version of this story?
JT: The first draft was angrier because I think we were still working through it, through our emotions. I think with each draft it got more complex, and I think more layered, and it became more and more focused on being in some ways to the San Francisco that we care about. I think in that way, that’s something that, Jimmie is fighting for this home. If you don’t feel his love, and see what’s worth loving in this city, everything from the small interactions with the naked man in the bus stop who we actually probably have some connection to, to the very details of the house that make it so special, it was important to capture those that I think you really see why his fight is worth fighting. I think otherwise, it’s intellectual. And you’re being told, “I get that this is important.” Versus the visceral feeling of, “I love this city, too. I don’t want him to lose this city.” We tried to do it through love, because I think that’s a more universal emotion that we’ve felt for a place.
What are some dream projects for you guys in the future?
JF: Other stories about the city, honestly. Other stories about the San Francisco history, more specifically like a period piece. I would like to explore the actual stories that we’re talking about when talking about before the urban redevelopment, and the Harlem of the West actually going on there. There’s always movies about Harlem, but not the Harlem of the West. So why can’t we do some of those? There’s tons of stuff you could do.
JT: I think also, in some ways, we see this as the first installment in a potential San Francisco trilogy, of other stories in San Francisco that are dealing with the same themes. There’s one in particular that we’ve just begun to kind of dig into, and it’s a very different story, but it also deals with longing for the past and takes on a more head-on where the future is being created in the Bay Area. I think there are so many more stores … that’s the thing, we tried to pack in a lot with this one. But we go on these walks, and Jimmie has this comedic side that’s really funny, and we’ve been thinking about how fun it would be to do something in that space, too.
Speaking of funny, I have to ask—why does Jimmie wear flannel in both “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and the short you guys made before it, “American Paradise”? Jimmie, I saw your Instagram post about that.
JF: Well, I’m still Jimmie in “American Paradise.” It was supposed to kind of tie together. Like, that was [actor Prentice Sanders] before, the inspiration for the character of Montgomery. And that grandpa, that’s supposed to be Prentice’s grandpa telling the story basically. It’s supposed to tie back into “Last Black Man” in a way, and I’m talking about how I want a boat. But the next movie, no. The flannel’s gone. [laughs]