Situated in perpetual fog and surrounded by both water and emerald hills, San Francisco can feel like a place out of time and space. At any given point in the year it could be 60 degrees, the city’s bright blue skies piercing between veils of mist that burn off in the morning only to roll back in at night. In lieu of conventional seasons, you can track the passage of days by which street festival is descending next; costumery is typical just about everywhere. It is, in brief, enchanting.
San Francisco is also imperfect and infuriating. It’s a case study on the effects of rapid urban gentrification. As Silicon Valley money metastasizes and consumes the city, its narrative is one of conflicts: exploding home prices exacerbating a decades-long real-estate problem, families entrenched for generations being evicted from their neighborhoods, ever-increasing homelessness. Amid it all, individuals fight to preserve their city. The Last Black Man in San Francisco, now playing in theaters, tells one such story.
A hybrid of biography and fantasy, Last Black Man stars Jimmie Fails as a fictionalized version of himself trying to get back the stunning Victorian mansion that his grandfather owned and his family lost during his childhood. Co-written and directed by Fails’s lifelong friend Joe Talbot, the movie is an ode to and a living obituary for a hometown increasingly unfamiliar to those who love it the most. “The Talbots was the closest thing that I’ve gotten to a family since mine got the house taken away,” says Fails, who — like the Last Black Man version of himself he plays in the movie — previously lived in the family home of his close friend. He was otherwise transient. “In a way I got used to that sort of thing. I know how to make my way around my city. I know it like the back of my hand, and it’s all home to me ’cause I’m from there.” Vulture sat down with Talbot and Fails to talk about the five-year process of getting Last Black Man to audiences, the meaning of home, and who’s really allowed to say “Fuck San Francisco.”
I lived in San Francisco for seven years, and I remember telling myself if I ever started thinking San Francisco was normal, that was when I needed to leave.
Jimme Fails: Hell yeah.
Joe Talbot: That’s so true. They say keep Santa Cruz weird. It’s the same thing for San Francisco, and it does feel more and more normal, which is part of our fear. Even the neighborhoods that we spent our time in growing up — like the Mission and Bernal [Heights] — there’s so many different kinds of people, so many eccentric characters. You’ve got cartoonists and old-timey doc filmmakers and muralists and people who run the bakeries on 24th Street.
It’s just so many different kinds of people that we feel that we’re losing. And that’s part of the heartbreak, you know? Seeing what’s been happening in our lifetimes, and seeing that it extends to long before we were alive. As I talk about this, it’s so troubling that it’s never been easy to be a black homeowner in San Francisco, and that’s going back to Willie Mays. My parents bought our house for just over $200,000 in 1994. It was one of the only places they could afford, and now they could never afford it. We’re barely holding on to our house. But out of that house, there were always friends of ours coming over and making music, making films. As kids we were very encouraged to do that. Jimmie I lived there for years to get this movie made. It felt like that house was a place of grounding. It felt supportive, loving, and my parents were just so encouraging, even through their own financial struggles. Without that house I don’t think the movie would’ve got made. So the movie about a home — in a way — it comes from a home.
I miss San Francisco a lot when I don’t go back for a while, but I’ve found, too, that I can feel myself missing it when I’m inside the city as well. It’s such a great place to be, but there’s also a sense of melancholy.
Fails: I used to go to Oakland for two hours and be like, “All right, bro. About that time!” And it’s just different now. It takes longer for me to get homesick. Even now, I would usually be like, “Oh, how’s the city? What’s up? I can’t wait to get back,” and it’s not the same anymore.
Talbot: You know, before I came to L.A. to edit the movie, the longest I’d ever left San Francisco was like a week. My whole life. I didn’t go to college. Jimmie went away for like a year, and I think a lot of great people that made the city what it was left and didn’t come back. Then Jimmie did come back, I think out of that feeling he had of longing for the city, and this feeling I had that a lot of the people I was close with were leaving, that’s what the movie was sort of birthed out of emotionally — in addition to the stories of Jimmie’s past. So, it’s a complicated relationship. Frankly, the premiere at the Castro [Theater] was inspiring, to see that many different kinds of San Franciscans all in one space to watch a movie.
Fails: They were so many interactions, too, during the showing. They just got all the little things. It was such a nice confirmation that we did something they could get behind, that they can support. That was great, and we can’t stress enough how much help we got with this, how collaborative it was, just countless people worked so hard.
Talbot: I’m not going to lie. We and our team of collaborators spent a lot of time trying to get every little detail in this movie right, everything down certain haircuts in Hunter’s Point to the throwback Muni bus. We tried to imbue it with a very particular kind of nostalgia for people like yourself that remember a certain San Francisco that we love.
The Kickstarter for this movie first launched way back in 2014, and that’s a long time to sit with a piece of work. Did making it change your relationship with home?
Talbot: I think we both worked through, in our own ways, problems we had with our city in making it. The first draft of the script was angrier and I think less nuanced, ’cause it was the first explosion of frustration with what was happening. And with each draft, it got more nuanced and complicated.
Fails: I feel like at the beginning it came out of a place of depression, but when you meet more collaborators that are good people and you start to develop it more, you get a little less bitter. I don’t think it’s good to fight back in that way. You know what I’m saying? As violent as gentrification is, that’s not the San Francisco way to fight back. Then these people are bringing so much love around you, all your peers, and you kind of look at it in a different way. I’m so glad it took as long as it did. I was about to turn 20, and you’re young and kind of fiery. How are you going to feel for a character that’s bitter in that way?
But there was still a sense of righteous satisfaction when Jimmie’s aunt tells him, “Fuck San Francisco,” after he’s suffered a big setback.
Fails: The Castro got a big cheer for “Fuck San Francisco.”
With the movie being so DIY, how did Danny Glover come on board?
Fails: He literally called me while he was eating lunch and was like, “What’s up? My name’s Danny.” I was like, “Okay. I don’t know how you got my number. I don’t know what’s going on,” and we just talked about the old Fillmore, old San Francisco. I explained to him the story we were trying to tell, and he ended up signing on shortly after. It was crazy.
And you guys also got Michael Marshall, who sang the hook on “I Got 5 On It,” to be a street performer. I was inconsolable when he started singing “San Francisco” a cappella.
Talbot: That was a pretty magical day. Of everyone involved in the movie that was doing it like a labor of love, it was a little bit more of a job for Tim [Erickson], our digital imaging technician. I hate to say that about Tim, but as Mike Marshall was singing that I looked back and Tim is weeping, and he has a flower in his hair that he wore the rest of the day. And this whole group of people had formed on Haight Street to watch, because his voice is just booming off the Victorians. That was a special day.
Gentrification is obviously at the core of the movie’s conflict, but it also doesn’t reduce the battle to Jimmie versus a Google employee. Is that a character conflict you deliberately avoided?
Talbot: We tried to focus it more on Jimmie’s relationship with the city and friendship and the characters that made San Francisco great. I think as soon as you put some sort of villainous stand-in for tech it oversimplifies and removes what is so tragic about what’s happening, because it’s not one person. It’s not one company. It’s not even just people moving there. It’s people in city government. It’s so hard to pinpoint it, because we all have our own unique relationships to gentrification as people that are both affected by it and partaking in it.
And that’s obviously a sentiment that stretches to any large urban area where local displacement is happening.
Talbot: It can be anywhere as American cities change all over the country. You know, if you’ve bled for a city then you feel some sort of ownership and defensiveness of it when someone else is talking shit, even if some of the shit they’re talking is stuff that you might agree with.
You don’t get to talk about my sister like that!
Talbot: That’s my mom, man! Yeah, because you know all the wonderful things about your sister, too, and no matter what she does she’s still your sister. It’s still your city, and you’re still a San Franciscan no matter what you do. I think there is an arrogance that comes with people coming to a place, stepping in shit, and being like, “Why is there shit on the street? This is disgusting!” Well, maybe there’s shit on the street ’cause that person used to live in the apartment that you do, and now they can’t afford it anymore.
Fails: And they don’t have a fucking bathroom.
The story is so tied to one place, but how has it been received as you’ve toured it in different cities?
Talbot: You hear this cliché that the specific is universal, but it’s weirdly true. We go to New York and L.A. and it’s strange how often people feel a connection to this very San Francisco story, because the same things are happening all over. But also, one really interesting response we’ve been getting is how nice it is to see men being vulnerable. A lot of men are coming up to us and you can tell some of them are struggling even to put it into words, because they don’t get to be vulnerable that often, but they seem to be really relieved to see that on screen. One woman said after one of our screenings, “Fuck, I love men.” And I was like, “ … said no one in 2019.” Wow. Well, that is a feat! We appreciated that, and I’m really encouraged by it.