Thora Birch shows up for a second at the end of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the feature debut from Joe Talbot.
She’s slumped on a bus next to a friend. They talk trash about the city as they’re shuttled through it, benefitting from public investment as they disparage the city for all the ways it has exploited the public for private profit. When you have multi-generational history with a city, as Talbot and star Jimmie Fails have with San Francisco, you encounter this problem a lot. People with money who come to live in a city, benefit every day from the invisible love and labor of locals (often people of color) which powers the city, work a high wage job with no investment in its community, learn nothing, and then talk shit. Fails overhears the conversation, and in a rare pointed moment tells them, “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
It’s the startling, spoken apotheosis of a film which communicates almost exclusively without words. The Last Black Man in San Francisco tells a fabulist version of Fails’ real family story. We follow Jimmie and best friend Mont’s (Jonathan Majors) struggle to reclaim ownership of Fails’ family home. The story goes that Fails’ grandfather was the first black man in San Francisco, and built the house with his own hands in 1946. Eventually, Fails’ father lost the house to deep-pocketed white buyers empowered by the systematic gentrification of the Fillmore. By the time we pick up in Mont and Jimmie’s epoch, the displacement is so complete that the journey to secure their birthright takes on the magnanimity and surrealism of myth. Talbot’s debut, in truth the collaborative debut of Talbot and Fails, lifelong friends and San Franciscans, is symphonic, haunting, masterful in its delivery if disappointedly a bit muddled in the particulars of its message. I spoke with Joe Talbot on the day of the film’s New York premiere about all this and more.
Ryan Coleman, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): There’s an unconditional love for San Francisco that feels baked into the foundation of your film. Your family is from the city?
Joe Talbot (JT): They are. My Dad is actually from L.A. and my mom was fourth generation San Franciscan. I’m fifth generation, grew up there.
MM: My family’s been in Los Angeles for four generations, so your film was bittersweet to watch. As relatable in the beautiful moments as it was in the painful moments. Was your connection to the city what enabled you to paint a complex picture of it?
JT: I think it’s what Jimmie says about Kofi during Mont’s play, that people aren’t one thing. It’s true of cities as well. I think our fear is that San Francisco is becoming more and more one thing. When we were growing up it was so many things, so many different kinds of people. Being able to come together and form friendships and relationships was part of the experience of the city. It’s a strange feeling making this movie. In some ways it was birthed in anger. But over the years we refined it and refined it. Jimmie always says that we fight through love instead of with fists. We tried to get it more to a place that fits the spirit of San Francisco, that we hoped was empathetic toward everyone equally. That’s why I think people are proud to be from San Francisco, because there is a history of that.
MM: How did you conceptualize incorporating the city’s history into the film?
JT: It feels like there is a nostalgia baked into the history of San Francisco. Even going back to the 1870s you had Mark Twain saying “well it’s nothing like the 1860s.” “It’s gone to the dogs,” I think was a line about that. There’s a similar line in Vertigo, someone remarks to Jimmy Stewart’s character how the city’s changed. I think there is this longing for a past that in some ways didn’t exist, or else we see it romantically. I think the film is trying to wrestle with both the real things that were lost, the very tangible things—the people that made the city great who are no longer there—and an acknowledgment that even when we were growing up it was a city we had a lot of problems with. It plays out historically too, going back to the ‘60s, the “urban renewal” of the Filmore, and programs like that going back before that. It’s a hard thing to pin back, you know. When your family dates back generations, you feel like you’ve been alive a lot longer than you have because you grew up with those stories.
MM: Did your knowledge of and connection to the city come from making the film, or was gaining that part of the appeal of making it?
JT: It’s a mix. I’ve always been intrigued by San Francisco’s history. Partly that started as a cultural interest. I love the music from the ‘60s. I love the movies from the ‘40s, the noirs. Films that were set there, or at least were shot to look like they were set there like The Maltese Falcon, Dark Passage, Coppola’s work in the ‘70s like The Conversation. Harold and Maude definitely influenced me. Hal Ashby treats everyone with dignity. There are no evil characters. There are some people who don’t support Harold and Maude’s love and even they are treated with a sort of comedic empathy. It’s kind of this hippie ethos. Even strange, sort of forgotten films like Richard Lester’s Petulia uses San Francisco as well as anybody else. Through growing up on those movies and music like Jefferson Airplane, Janis, and Moby Grape I fell in love with San Francisco’s past, but this movie punched me much deeper into it.
MM: This film works on a visual plane, communicates things implicitly rather than explicitly or didactically. Were you ever afraid of using this approach? Afraid your point would get lost or misinterpreted?
JT: It definitely was a balancing act. We’re talking about real problems facing the city, displaced people, gentrification, violence. So we didn’t want to shy away from showing those because that’s part of the story. But you also don’t want to give the audience too much. It’s a complex story about complex people in a complex place, you can’t really make anything into a point. That’s where music comes in for me. I’ve never understood how people will shoot and sequence a film and then go back and write the music for it. For me, it happens at the same time, because the camerawork, music, clothing, and even colors can tell a whole story in and of themselves. Things shift. Like I said this started as an angry indictment, and that’s far from where it ended up. The reaction to the film so far has been incredible, so I hope that our process paid off. MM
The Last Black Man in San Francisco, directed by Joe Talbot, is now streaming. Feature image courtesy of A24.