'The Last Black Man in San Francisco' - An Act of Love for a Home That is Slipping Away
July 9, 2019
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is the story of Jimmie Fails IV (the name of both the protagonist and the San Francisco-born actor who portrays him). The loosely biographical film depicts Jimmie’s attempt to first take care of and then take back his childhood home. It is a meditation on loss and belonging that has resonated with audiences and critics all over the world.
I spoke with the film’s writer-director, Joe Talbot, about what life is like for him and his lifelong friend Jimmie as native artists in San Francisco. We also discussed why the pair felt it was important to be meticulous in depicting the city despite knowing many of the granular details would be lost on a significant portion of the audience.
“When you are from here and you are seeing the city change in unrecognizable ways, it is only natural that the stories we tell are inspired by that,” Talbot said.
“I want to spend that extra time trying to make sure that every scene has these little nuggets that remind us why we love San Francisco. You have these associations and you want to capture those things because we feel like they are being lost.”
The film is hardly unique in confronting gentrification in this manner; much of the artwork coming out of the Bay Area today seeks to center the stories, histories and testimony of those who’ve been forced to the periphery. In the past few years, independent films like Fruitvale Station, Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You have all in their own ways sought to address the fallout of the massive inequality brought upon by Northern California’s tech boom.
Each of these other films is set across the Bay from San Francisco in Oakland, though. As Talbot pointed out, there is deeper isolation for those few artists who’ve managed to remain in the city itself.
“You are lonely in San Francisco that way,” he said.
“We are these weird outliers. Even in the East Bay there are some artists, but here we just feel sometimes like we are these freaks making movies. Some of the very people who came on to this movie and bleed for it were of course not from here, but even they felt like the last batch of artists before the gates went up.”
Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin, a professor of African-American history at City College of San Francisco, where Fails attended, echoed Talbot’s point.
“Within the performing arts community there’s a feeling of people trying to come together to preserve and hold onto a legacy,” she said.
“Part of our work is to inform people. It is not just for an audience of your peers, it is for an audience of people who have no idea.”
This creates a conundrum for a filmmaker like Talbot. Could he and Jimmie tell their story without having to construct two parallel narratives — one that speaks to those who were here and know, and another that speaks to those who have come here and need to learn?
When I attended the film’s Bay Area premiere back in May, actor Danny Glover — himself a San Francisco native who also appears in the film — spoke following the screening. In his remarks, Glover made a point to highlight the struggle to integrate the local longshoreman’s unions. He pointed out that this struggle provided access to decent jobs for black folks who would go on to shape neighborhoods like the Bayview and the Fillmore, where this film is set.
It would have felt polemical for the film to include such a history lesson. Instead, it seeks to find details that elucidate the visceral feeling of a time and place; whether it is the inclusion of a “candy-house,” the artwork on Jimmie’s skateboard deck, cameos by San Quinn, Mike Marshall and Jello Biafra, or a white character named Newsom who stands to benefit from the displacement of black people, the film is awash with references that attest to its integral San Francisco bona-fides.
As the film’s opening monologue, literally delivered from atop a soapbox, tells us, “You can’t Google what’s going on here!” The film’s goal is not to persuade intellectually; it is to move the audience emotionally and in that regard it is entirely successful.
As Dunn-Salahuddin puts it, “I think they captured a feeling and a mind state around what it means to be in this generation of San Francisco. We are at the water’s edge. Where do we go from here?”
Everything from the film’s near-celestial cinematographic depiction of the water’s edge to its tenderly nostalgic score and soundtrack conveys a recognition of the value of these other San Franciscos, be they fleeting or entirely committed to history. By relying upon the resonant power of images and character details, Talbot and his team arrived at doleful dwelling on what it feels like to know and love one’s home.
“Me and Jimmie obsessed over all those little details, from the exact model of Muni bus that was the same as we used to ride growing up to Kofi’s haircut and tail from Hunters Point,” Talbot said.
“All those things, when you grow up here, they are things that make the city. We wanted to make sure that no detail was lost in the hopes of creating the most immersive experience.”
That is, one that is immersive for both those familiar with San Francisco and those who do not know its stories.
“We wanted to make something that hopefully people that are from here can see and feel like it captures what we love about the city. And people that aren’t from here; that don’t quite know what gentrification feels like, what it feels like to lose your home, can see and realize that there was a lot of character here,” Talbot said.
“This isn’t just a longing for the past. There are very real, tangible things; great people and special places that are being changed forever. So the hope was that if we put that into a movie, if we can pack all that detail in, then perhaps you can leave the theater thinking about it differently. Or, if you are from here, perhaps [you will leave] feeling seen.”
Here is where The Last Black Man in San Francisco finds its place; not so much as an elegy, more like a mural in the Mission district. The film is a real-time counterbalancing work of preservation.
“Things die when you don’t say their names,” Dunn-Salahuddin said.
“Whether the audience gets it or not, the fact that it is documented and preserved is an important piece of remembering.”
Written by: Sayre PiotrkowskiSayre Piotrkowski is an Oaklander who writes about beer, politics, music, and film. He has been called “the Bay Area’s Beer Guru” by San Francisco Magazine and named “one of the country’s top beer sommeliers” by Eater.com. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, and he has been a guest on Heritage Radio and The Good Beer Hunting Podcast. Follow him @beerandsoulblog on Twitter, @beerandsoul on instagram or @sayrepiotrkowski on Medium