Ask Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails a question and chances are they’ll both start to answer it simultaneously. The director and lead actor of The Last Black Man In San Francisco respectively, one of the indie hits of 2019, the two have been close friends since childhood and the film is the result of that friendship, along with a multitude of shared interests.
As Fails describes it, “We grew up together. We were in the same neighbourhood. We kinda knew we were going to be friends before we were friends. It was like a mutual, silent respect. We ended up meeting after seeing each other around and it started from there, with a long conversation that was the basis of our relationship. We were talking about life and girls and music and whatever. Our talks have always inspired the work we’ve done.”
And it’s a friendship that’s sustained them during the long, often arduous, process of getting finance for the film, based on Fail’s own personal story about the house he always believed was built by his grandfather, and finally shooting it in the city they love, but one that they believe is changing for the worse. It was a film of firsts – Talbot was a first-time director, Fails playing his first lead role, the composer and several producers were new names as well – so there was a lot riding on it. And it was, admits Talbot, “incredibly difficult to get made. I’m a high school drop-out, Jimmie’s only ever acted in my movies. That does not lead to someone wanting to give you a couple of million dollars to make a movie. We, and the team around the movie, were these crazy rascals from San Francisco who wanted to make a film and would stop at nothing.
“We developed it over some years, far from the reach of the Hollywood hand and finally, after years of trying to get it made and doing everything from making elaborate look books, as well as websites with all this original photography, to raising numerous grants to shooting a short film – we did all these projects to build a groundswell of support. We had a Kickstarter campaign which raised $75,000. And it was good that it took that time it did because it helped us hone our craft. We weren’t ready to make this movie when we started. Neither of us went to film school so this was sort of our film school. Eventually we were really fortunate and met the producers of Plan B and they, together with my producer Khaliah Neal, brought on A24 to finance it.”
As well as being based on Fails’ story, he also plays a version of himself in the film and Talbot never gave a moment’s thought to casting anybody else in the role. “There were meetings we went into when we were told ‘It has to be Michael B Jordan’ or ‘It has to be Donald Glover’ and they’re both great actors but there was no one else for this role than Jimmie,” he says. “Someone wrote to me and said ‘I think Jimmie’s eyes should be nominated for an award.’” That’s news to Fails! “But I think Jimmie is not only pulling from his life so he understands the character, but he’s also an incredible actor and it’s always exciting to see this up and coming talent break in and have their first role.”
Their love for their city is tangible, as is their sadness at how it’s changing, something woven into the very fabric of the film. The San Francisco depicted on the screen isn’t Lombard Street or Fisherman’s Wharf, nor it is the City of Armistead Maupin, but one that’s shrouded in fog and has poisoned water. They admit to being both confused and conflicted, having grown up on stories from their parents and grandparents about its history. Says Talbot, “It was a place that welcomed outcasts, artists and oddballs. People escaping persecution came there to be the people they couldn’t be elsewhere and that’s one of the proudest things when you grow up in the city you know that history and that lineage. Now that’s disappearing and the very people that made San Francisco what it is are being pushed out. It’s full of irony that the city that once welcomed gays and hippies and African Americans is driving them out in waves. You can be walking down a city block and be overwhelmed by nostalgia as you look around you and it can quickly turn to anger and frustration because it can also feel unrecognisable. It’s a strange feeling.”
For both Fails and Talbot, it’s too easy to say that it’s natural for cities to change. Talbot continues, “What’s happening now is not natural. There are large, powerful forces at work with very strong vested interests in the change happening in San Fran. It’s important for us all to understand – natives and well as people moving to the city – and get a deeper understanding so that we can combat those changes.” Between them they’ve made a film which looks back longingly at the past and where the character at the centre feels alienated from the city that’s always been his home. And it’s that internal conflict and confusion that gives The Last Black Man In San Francisco an emotional resonance that continues well after the last credits have rolled.
Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails were talking to Freda Cooper.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco is in cinemas on Friday, 25 October.