‘Last Black Man’ Joins a Short List of Films that Gets San Francisco Right

Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails in 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco,' 2019. (Photo by Peter Prato; Courtesy of A24)

Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails’ ambitious, soulful and clear-eyed debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, offers new evidence of a longstanding truth: Nobody sees this city, and the determined nonconformists who make it their home for a while or forever, like the independent filmmakers who live here.

Sure, Vertigo and Mrs. Doubtfire will always epitomize San Francisco for the masses. But low-budget indies like Heat and Sunlight (1987), Steal America (1992), Dream with the Fishes (1997), North Beach (2000), Haiku Tunnel (2001), Medicine for Melancholy (2008) and Centaur (2011) captured the zeitgeist of the moment by etching outcasts and artists (not to mention blocks and neighborhoods) more familiar to residents than tourists.

That should be a sufficient argument for The Last Black Man in San Francisco (opening June 7) to be essential viewing for locals. Even better, it’s strewn with ideas without being show-offy, it’s earnest yet unsentimental, and penetrating without being moralistic. As a bonus, Talbot, Fails and their cohorts deftly integrate into the subtly multilayered and multigenerational plot subjects like Jefferson Airplane and Giants fandom, Hunters Point redevelopment and Chinatown fish stands, former Mabuhay Gardens punks and ’00s indie-film wannabe hipsters, interactions on Muni and the solitude of the Bay.

Danny Glover and Jonathan Majors in 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco,' 2019.
Danny Glover and Jonathan Majors in 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco,' 2019. (Courtesy of A24)

The plot, which draws on Fails’ life story, centers on a young black guy (played by Fails) with no permanent residence who’s fixated on the great Fillmore house where his family lived when Jimmy was a boy and which, his father endlessly recounted, his grandfather built. At the start of the story, Jimmy is crashing with best friend Mont (a would-be playwright, played by Jonathan Majors) and Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover, delivering sardonic line readings and representing San Francisco’s once-thriving black middle class).

“Every draft had a lot going on from the beginning,” Talbot relates in an interview last week. “Lots of characters and locations that are supposed to evoke feelings of a certain San Francisco. The friendship. Jimmy being in both Hunters Point and the house in the Fillmore, and the different relationships he has in each area. If you lose the friendship, you lose the grounding force. If you lose the elements of the city, you lose what’s so special about San Francisco and why it’s worth fighting for. If you lose the house, you lose the love story. All those things are integral to the film and to Jimmy’s character.”

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The most obvious way to watch The Last Black Man in San Francisco is as a parable of gentrification, and a lament for the people pushed out of their homes and ’hoods by economic pressures. That theme, along with the variety of sympathetic representations of black identity, give the movie a national relevance that allows it to travel (and succeed) far beyond its hometown.

Jimmie Fails and the house in 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco,' 2019.
Jimmie Fails and the house in 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco,' 2019. (Courtesy of A24)

“In cinema, you often see black men portrayed in a certain way,” Fails says. “Athlete, drug dealer, slave—if it’s a period piece. In a modern way, we just wanted to explore all the different types of black people there are—black men, especially, the different nuances and things that set them apart.”

A few minutes later, in another room of the Nob Hill hotel where the press day is being held, Rob Morgan (Mudbound) reframes an overly polite question on the same subject. “How refreshing was it to see some real black men on screen, finally!” he declares with a loud laugh. Morgan plays Jimmy’s father as a suspicious, unbending and unexpectedly elegant man who’s nonetheless past his salad days. But he’s not a villain, which, in another movie, he could be. Or his character might be absent altogether.

“It’s been documented how networks and production companies strategically take out the black male presence of the father in movies and TV shows,” Morgan asserts, “and that reflects the society at the same time. Art reflects life; life reflects art. So for 50 years you just keep seeing movies with no black fathers, or he’s a deadbeat or behind on child support, he’s getting killed or he’s in prison. Something that’s just tired, because we see it all the time, and I think that informs society on how to respond to black men in a lot of ways.”

Rob Morgan and Jimmie Fails in 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco,' 2019.
Rob Morgan and Jimmie Fails in 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco,' 2019. (Courtesy of A24)

Tichina Arnold, a fellow New Yorker who plays Jimmie’s sharp, no-nonsense Aunt Wanda, nods and adds, “I hadn’t had a lot of films cross my path to audition for that were good. But this script resonated with me because it was poetic. And I’m one of the only female characters that the main character does love; he has no love interest. His love interest is that home.”

In addition to the script, Arnold was impelled to do the film because of the dynamic between Talbot and Fails. The Sundance jury picked up on it in the finished film, awarding a prize for creative collaboration along with best director.

Talbot notes, “I found a friend in Jimmy when we met [many years ago], and a creative collaborator, and someone who stars in pretty much everything I’ve ever made as a filmmaker.”

When they finally got into production, Fails discovered that playing himself—or a version of himself—was the strangest feeling. “It’s weird. Sometimes you don’t feel like you’re getting in the character, per se, you’re just getting into a space that you need to be in for this scene.”

Tichina Arnold in 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco,' 2019.
Tichina Arnold in 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco,' 2019. (Courtesy of A24)

His first and foremost passion was music, Fails says, and he admits he was transformed by the process of making The Last Black Man in San Francisco. “I never saw acting as storytelling before, for some reason,” he confides. “I saw it as art, but I didn’t see it as storytelling. Now I see it as deeper than that, and I love to do it and I’m sticking with that now.”

For his part, Talbot says, “I don’t know that every actor has that ability to both perform and be analytical. That’s an incredible thing to be able to do.”

By the way, there’s another key Bay Area independent feature that is explicitly referenced in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and that’s Terry Zwigoff’s wonderful Ghost World (2001). (I disqualified it from my list at the top because it was filmed in Southern California.)

Talbot saw Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel in high school, and grew up not far from the director on Potrero Hill. Fans of Ghost World—and The Last Black Man in San Francisco—will appreciate the joke that Talbot and Thora Birch shared when he was casting her: “It’s kind of as if Enid moved to San Francisco and got a job she hated in tech and never got off the bus at the end of the movie.”

Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot in San Francisco.
Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot in San Francisco. (Photo by Adam Newport-Berra; Courtesy of A24)

Fails and Talbot are too reserved, and modest, to trumpet their achievement the way that filmmakers typically are happy to do. Talbot’s summation of the process that produced The Last Black Man in San Francisco is revealing, and characteristic.

“I was involved in every facet of this thing, and people that know me say, ‘This movie feels a lot like you, Joe, in some ways.’ It also is true that a lot of the best moments came from conversations and other people’s brilliant ideas. And that collaborative nature we had on this film between Jimmy and I, and then our larger group of collaborators, I think is unusual. I think most movies aren’t created that way. In seeing how people are responding to it, and the detailed, meticulous nature of the movie, that’s because we have so much brainpower on it that extends beyond what you would usually have on a movie like this.”

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'The Last Black Man in San Francisco' opens in theaters nationwide on June 7. Details here.

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