Coming Home: The Story Behind ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’

It’s pretty easy to spot Joe Talbot in a crowd. You just look for the San Francisco Giants baseball cap.

The hat is not a fairweather-fan affectation or a fashion accessory for the 28-year-old filmmaker — it’s as much a part of his wardrobe as his oversized denim jacket or old-school sneakers. You could picture him blending in with the masses outside the team’s hometown stadium, the one that was formerly known as Pac Bell Park when it opened in 2000 before being rechristened SBC Park in 2003, then AT&T Park in 2006 and, as of 2019, Oracle Park, though that moniker could be changed to another tech company by the time you are finished reading this article. (Never mind that for several generations of San Franciscans, the Giants’ real home will always be Candlestick Park.) But in the lobby of a Lower East Side hotel, where he’s waiting for his lead actor and best friend and partner-in-crime Jimmie Fails to show up, Talbot is the only one flying the black-and-orange colors, the intertwined funky-font letters. He sticks out.

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You would have seen him sporting that same cap in Park City, Utah, when The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Talbot’s feature debut and a true labor of love for the two childhood pals, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. The semiautobiographical story of a young man named Jimmie (played by Fails) who begins squatting in a temporarily empty Victorian — it was his old family home, long since sold off to new owners — this funny, melancholy, highly personal remembrance of things past ended up walking away with a directing award and a special jury prize for “creative collaboration.” (The film opened in New York, Los Angeles and, naturally, San Francisco this past weekend; it opens nationally on June 21st.)

The whole Sundance thing was a bit of blur, Talbot says now; he mostly remembers walking onstage and immediately spotting Boots Riley and Barry Jenkins in the audience and quietly freaking out. “It wasn’t even like I was starstruck,” he says. “I know those guys! Boots had started getting traction on Sorry to Bother You about the same time we were working on our movie, so we’d check in with other a lot. And then Barry met with us, read the first draft, gave us notes —”

“Tell him the Barry Jenkins story,” roars Fails, who strides through the hotel door in the middle of the sentence. Talbot suddenly gets a sheepish look on his face.

“Aw, dude, c’mon,” he says, laughing.

“We didn’t know any filmmakers in the Bay Area,” Fails says, ribbing his best friend as they settle into a nearby booth. “We see Medicine for Melancholy” — Jenkins’ 2008 movie shot in San Francisco — “and Joe’s like …”

“‘Someone’s doing it, and he’s here!’ So we reached out to him,” Talbot says. “And the first thing I asked him …”

“‘I can probably shoot this for $50,000 and no script, right?’” Fails quotes. “And Barry’s like, ‘Ummmm … you could shoot something …‘”

“‘Do you think I even need to write a script to make a film?’” Talbot adds. Jenkins’ response? “‘Yeah, Joe … that’s a pretty good place to start.’” Both of them crack up. Fails shakes his head.

“Like, what the fuck did we know about making a real movie?” he asks.

“Nothing,” Talbot answers, grinning. “We were just two guys from San Francisco. So, you know — nothing at all.”

They met when they were kids — Fails was 11, Talbot was 15. Jimmie remembers watching his future friend get into a fight near the projects he’d recently relocated to. When the two would see each at school or on the bus, they’d give each other the “what’s up” nod. Then one day, Fails stopped by the Talbot household to see Joe’s little brother, and he and Joe just talked all afternoon and late in to the evening. Soon, the duo were hanging out constantly, skateboarding and goofing around and occasionally making short movies with their friends.

Sometimes, though, Fails and Talbot would take off on their own and go walking through their Bernal Heights neighborhood, two guys just being candid about their hopes and fears and all sorts of other things they felt they couldn’t discuss with other, less sensitive dudes they knew. “I mean, Joe likes to make it sound all romantic and shit,” Fails jokes, “but he was the only guy I knew who was willing to talk about a lot of really deep, personal stuff. He’s understanding, empathetic, a good listener. Joe’s long-winded as shit, but he’s a really good listener. We trusted each other.”

So much so, in fact, that Fails started opening up for the first time about his past — how he used to live in this great big house in the Fillmore District that his grandfather purchased, how when the old man passed away they couldn’t afford to keep up the payments and had to move, how things fell apart and Jimmie ended up in group homes. He’d become obsessed with his childhood residence, how it had taken on some sort of lost-paradise significance to him. Joe was compelled by his friend’s story. As a fifth-generation San Franciscan, he saw how it was part of a continuum of displacement and economic disparity that was happening more and more in the city. And the more the two young men therapeutically sifted through the experience, the more Talbot started to think that it might make for a good movie.

“I thought it was a joke at first,” Fails says. “Like, why the fuck would anybody be interested in my story? Whatever, it happened. But Joe sort of helped me see that other people might get something out of it. I don’t know that we could have made the movie if we hadn’t bonded in that particular way.”

Once Fails had returned to the Bay Area after a brief stint in New York — partially to give college a try, partially “just to do something different” — they’d brainstorm ideas, using Jimmie’s real-life story as a foundation. Eventually, they made a “concept trailer” that consisted of Jimmie skating around the city and talking about his family, the neighborhood, the house where he once lived, how he pined to get it back and restore the place to its old glory. It was designed to draw potential financiers to a Kickstarter campaign. But it also attracted the attention of two key collaborators: Khaliah Neal, a veteran of Focus Features who was trying to build up her resume as a producer; and Rob Richert, a filmmaker who Joe met through the local organization SFFILM. He ended up offering counsel and contributing to the screenplay; Richert is listed as the film’s cowriter along with Talbot. “She’s watched out for us and he’s like our other brother,” he says. “They just got it right away.”

Once they got the story into workable shape, they started casting. They saw dozens of actors for the part of Montgomery, Fails’ slightly cracked playwright buddy and his co-conspirator in illegally occupying the old homestead — guys they describe as “dudes with chiseled physiques who’d put on Coke-bottle glasses and then go, ‘Hey, look, I’m weird!’ No, dude. No, you’re not.” They eventually came across an audition tape from Jonathan Majors (Captive State) that was so “achingly vulnerable” they immediately invited him out. “He showed up three days early, we took him for a walk around our old hood,” Fails says, “and the first thing Jonathan says is ‘I hate social media as much as you guys!’ We’re like, we found him. This was the San Francisco eccentricity we were looking for.”

Talbot and Jonathan Majors on the set of ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco.’

For Montgomery’s uncle, they had reached out to Danny Glover, who they worshipped from “years of hearing stories of him leading protests at SF State in the ’60s.” After sending the Lethal Weapon star a script through his representatives, Fails says he was walking home one day when his phone rings. “Suddenly, Danny Glover is calling me during his lunch: ‘Hi, Jimmie [chomp, chomp], so about this movie [chomp, chomp] …’ Like, how am I really listening to my hero eating on the other end of my phone line? How did he even get this number?! This is surreal.” For a ranting, Segway-riding tour guide, Talbot hit up ex-Dead Kennedys frontman/Bay Area punk legend Jello Biafra, who he’d met when he was filming behind-the-scenes snippets for a film noir festival at the Castro Theater. Screen Jimmie’s mom is played by Real Jimmie’s mom. Locals rounded out the rest of the ensemble, from a Greek chorus of wannabe gangsters to the kooks, freaks and get-rich opportunists that populate the background scenes.

And as for Jimmie, despite the fact that several potential backers told the duo they’d sign on if some hot young actor was procured to play the lead, the idea was always that Fails would play his screen counterpart, period. “Not only has he been starring in my movies since we were kids,” Talbot says, “but he’s the fucking quintessential San Franciscan. He had one foot in every world growing up. Every kid in S.F. knew Jimmie. He was the only one who could do this justice. Everyone who came on to this project, they came on because of him. They wanted to help him tell his story. He set the tone.”

Fails — who says The Last Black Man in San Francisco is “more than 20 percent autobiographical; there are certain scenes that actually happened, certain characters based on actual people” — confirms that the process of reliving some of these incidents was tough yet incredibly cathartic. “Because it’s based on my life, there was a lot of stuff I got to cry out that I didn’t get to cry out at the time. I’d shoot a scene and then suddenly I’d have to go around the corner and I’d be just bawling. I really felt older after I made that movie. Like I had matured, you know. Like I had come out the other side of something.”

He’s made peace with several things inside himself thanks to making the film, he admits. And Fails and Talbot have made peace with the city at the center of this angry valentine, they say — to a degree. They each point out that it’s not a movie about gentrification per se, but because that topic has long been part of the daily landscape in the Bay Area, especially since the tech boom, it’s also unavoidable in the story they’re telling. They’ve seen how things have gone from changing every generation or so to every few years. They’ve seen how a neighborhood can go from home to unrecognizable in a blink.

“You’ll overhear these conversations now,” Talbot says, “where someone goes, ‘I’ve lived here 20 years.’ Then someone else says, ‘Well I’ve lived here 25 years!’ And another person goes, “Fuck both of you, I’ve been here 30 years!!!” It’s like the old joke, what do you call a gentrifier? Someone who moved in after you.”

“We’re S.F. natives,” Fails says. “The movie isn’t some hateful diatribe against people coming in — we’re just angry we no longer get to have the city that inspired us and nurtured us, you know? The message isn’t ‘Fuck techies!’ We’re mad, but we’re not mad at them.”

“But at the same time,” Talbot adds, as they both get up from the booth, “a lot of the people who originally came here were escaping something, or wanted to be part of a culture … and a lot of the anxiety we feel now is that people are no longer coming to San Francisco because they want to be part of San Francisco. They’re just coming for the gold rush.”

“They’re not coming with an open mind or an open heart,” Fails concurs, nodding. “You’re not coming with any respect for the people who were here before you. Move here if you want; I can’t stop you. But you need to respect the folks who made the city that you’re moving into.” And with that, the duo have to go introduce a screening. Fails puts on his coat, a vintage thrift-store purchase from a Mission District place he says has now closed down. Talbot adjust his baseball cap. And then they’re both out the door.

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