Inside the Magic and the Melancholy of 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'
Published Jul 05, 2019Bay Area natives Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, respectively the director and star of the singular new film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, are in Canada for the first time in their lives. "Toronto feels like an especially diverse city," Talbot says from a press room. "When we came in we were both noticing how developed it felt, and that was while we were going downtown… And then someone pointed out yesterday that Toronto has the odd distinction of having the most cranes facing the sky of any city in the world. I don't know if that's true, but that felt a little bit like San Francisco, because of course development has gone wild there."
Certainly, the San Francisco represented in Talbot and Fails' film is losing its identity to progress. The film is highly personal, based on Fails' own life, but its themes of gentrification and urban development ring true globally. "It started based on my family story about the house that inspired everything," Fails says, adding that the film's social themes are an extension of that. "I think that naturally comes with the house being in San Francisco. That came with the territory of telling that story."
Fails won't reveal just how much of the story is true — "There's real events in the film that are from my life. That's my real mom in the movie. But for the most part I just like to leave that open" — but the film is still brimming with a strange mix of realism and fantasy. The onscreen Jimmie is obsessed with the unaffordable Victorian home his grandfather built with his bare hands, so much so that he tends to its garden and fixes its paint when the owners are out grocery shopping. When the current owners lose the home in an estate debate, he invokes his squatter's rights and moves in with his best friend Montgomery (the excellent Jonathan Majors). Of course, like the ever-changing city around them, their situation doesn't last forever.
Armed with a sentimental score, breathtaking cinematography and a heightened, poetic tone, The Last Black Man is a truly magical work and quite possibly a masterpiece. For it to come together, however, Talbot and Fails had to find the perfect shooting location — a task that took nearly two years to complete.
"Oftentimes, what would happen is we would just be pounding the pavement on the streets, knocking on doors of Victorians that had beautiful facades… We'd go inside and the insides of these beautiful homes would be gutted and filled with Ikea and CB2 furniture, and all the detailing that makes them so unique would be removed for places with an open floor plan and granite table tops," Talbot recalls. "It became this kind of heartbreaking venture. Beyond being a filmmaker, as a San Franciscan, it was depressing to see how many of these homes with beautiful facades had been gutted inside."
Eventually, Talbot found what he was looking for by revisiting his childhood. "Finally we found a house that was one I had driven by as a kid with my mom and my brother on my way to elementary school. We couldn't afford a proper Victorian growing up, so we would play this game where we'd pick out our dream house and this was one of them," he says.
"We knocked on the door, and an older man came outside and beckoned us in. His name was Jim as well, and he had spent almost his entire adult life restoring that Victorian to its proper condition. Including the witch hat, shingle by shingle. And then doing the honour himself of, via crane, placing the witch hat on top of the house. He, among other things, was also an organ repair man and he had all of these organs in the house, and he even struck up a bond with Jimmie and was giving him tips at different points, like how to paint the window sill in a believable way. He, in some ways, had the spirit of the movie in his bones."
Similarly, Emile Mosseri's stunning neoclassical score was another act of kismet. "Something I had always dreamed of was having a big, lush orchestral score, and so often on independent films, I guess both for stylistic reasons and for budgetary ones, you just don't see those kinds of scores," Talbot explains. "I'm pretty sensitive, to the point where if a chord goes in a different direction than I'd like, it kind of can pull me out of the whole movie. So sometimes I'm the worst director to work with for a composer, because I'm so particular.
"When I met Emile, you know, I actually heard a piece that he had composed on set for the opening of the movie, and I had been told he did it in a day. And I really hadn't found anyone I was hitting it off with, and I was getting pretty nervous. We were deep in the edit, and I knew it was going to be a lot of back-and-forth required. So I met Emile when it came down to the wire. And I just cried when I heard the first piece he wrote, because it felt like he really understood, without ever having a conversation with me, what was important."
Talbot credits Mosseri and director of photography Adam Newport-Berra with going above and beyond to make sure the film was as powerful as possible. They also found support in San Francisco's skateboarding community. "Thrasher was super helpful to us early on, long before A24 and Plan B were involved, and we were pretty much an upstart working in my parent's kitchen in the house that Jimmie and I lived in for five years to make the movie," Talbot says, referring to the Bay Area skateboarding institution. "Tony Vitello, who runs Thrasher, wrote us and was just like 'How can I help out?' Because Thrasher was founded in Hunter Point, where part of the film takes place, and remains there today… Even though Tony has a very different background than Jimmie and me, he's a great San Franciscan and he has, I think in his own way through Thrasher, fought to keep the city great."
The city's love affair with skateboarding is portrayed as Jimmie's main source of transportation in the film, as well as through bit parts for legends like Andy Roy and Daewon Song. "San Francisco was a mecca for skateboarding in the '90s," Fails says. "It brings hella people together. Skateboarding in general does that, but definitely in the city, it plays a part in bringing different kids from different neighbourhoods together. So I just think that it was important to put that in there. Especially to get Andy Roy in there."
Factor in further cameos from the likes of Jello Biafra (who plays a dorky Segway tour guide) and a stunning performance from native San Franciscan Danny Glover, and it's clear that The Last Black Man portrays the magic of the Bay Area in a truly authentic way.
"Over the years, of course, many of the people who made San Francisco great have been pushed out," Talbot says. "So I think for us there is both a sense of magic and longing for a time that came both before us, or I guess the last shades of that time, rang out in our childhood, and also a sadness and a frustration with the forces that have forced those changes to happen.
"Jimmie is the one who has been fighting to stay in San Francisco, and both of us sometimes feel like that in real life," he concludes. "And of course like many people you're either pushed out or on the verge of it, or you're always sort of wondering how long you can stay. In some ways it's worth dedicating your whole life to fighting that battle."
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is now playing in Toronto. The film will expand across Canada throughout July.