Wednesday 13 November 2019
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The Last Black Man in San Francisco: Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails on Their Stunning First Film

Lifelong friends Joe Talbot (grandson of Hollywood actor Lyle Talbot) and Jimmie Fails tell Fails’ amazing true story in their first feature film which is also a visionary love letter to their city.  Talbot directors, Fails stars and they co-wrote a moving story that touches on friendship, gentrification, loss and the idea of home.  Fails has been homeless most of his life, like his character Jimmie Fails.  Fails comes across the only home he remembers before his family split up; an imposing Victorian built by his grandfather in a neighbourhood now being gentrified by rich white people. For twelve years, he’s tended to it with the attention to detail only an owner could feel. But for twelve years the current owners have told him to get lost. Fails, a poetic and philosophical sort, is judged by a street preacher, a tour guide (Jello Biafra) and a Greek chorus of neighbourhood teens, but he won’t be put off what he believes is his heritage. A stroke of luck finds him and his pal Mont (Jonathan Majors) living there but he can’t shake the feeling that the early loss he suffered so young will happen again.  We spoke with Talbot and Fails about this remarkable and beautifully shot film.

Actor and writer Jimmie Fails

There’s a strong Terrence Malick feel to the film but uniquely its own – reverence for human nature and spirit.

It was just making it authentic based on my story that’s all, keeping it as authentic as possible and empathetic as possible.  It’s the city of San Francisco, the values they teach, don’t judge, be gentle and vulnerable and I tried to keep that in the writing.

Jimmie’s obsessed with the house, it is his legacy and his attachment shows how the idea of home is deeply embedded in us.

Yes. I’m just trying to make a career for myself and buy a home in San Francisco to raise my kids. I love my city that made me. I express my views through my art, through film and do so through other forms of art.

Will you get that house?

Yes, of course, I will be able to, I am on the right track.

Jimmie is obsessive about the Victorian.  I think he’s highly relatable because he wants something really badly.

He’s watching over the house, he’s trying to preserve the house, the only place he knew. That’s where his family was before it was split. He feels like its rightful owner and he’s preserving it for that. And he looks up to his late grandfather.

Jonathan Majors stars as Montgomery Allen and Jimmie Fails as Jimmie Fails in THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO, an A24 release.
Credit: Peter Prato / A24

You finally get inside the house and there’s this explosion of joy – what were you thinking then?

I’m just thinking about going back to the kid part of you and how excited you were when something happened when you were a kid, like going to Disney.

The look of the film is amazing, it’s painterly, surreal, impressionistic and pop art.

We worked hard on that. San Francisco feels like a dream, it’s very colourful, so its partially the beauty of the city itself and the and the rest is the cinematographer.

The Greek chorus is lots of fun.

It’s so cool and accurate. We all love amongst each other, the black artists, nerds, academics, weirds, the street corner preacher.  They’re all there.

Jimmie’s mother is a jarring character when you casually meet on a bus when she hasn’t bothered to see you in a long time.  How true is that?

That actually happened that scene. That’s my real mom.

Do you have a relationship now?

Yes, we have a working relationship.

Jimmie the response to the film has been amazing. How are you feeling about it?

It awesome, because I feel like people can relate to it. It’s my story and its relatable.

Director and writer Joe Talbot

First, Joe, I’m a fan of your grandfather Lyle Talbot!

Gee, you don’t hear that much, thanks!  He made some great films, my favourites are 3 on a Match and White Lightning!

Joe, you deal with profound emotions in the film, it’s pretty dense.

For us, the film is trying to deal with a lot. Change is overwhelming, any different feeling can be, conflicted feelings. We always say that gentrification feels big and small, the loss of a neighbourhood, the bakery you used to walk by on your way to school has been replaced and God knows what. And friendship at the heart of the film.

Jimmie Fails stars as Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors as Montgomery Allen in THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO, an A24 release.
Credit: Laila Bahman / A24

The artistry in the look of the film is stunning – elements of impressionism, surrealism, pop art – all there.

There wasn’t any film we referenced but often we would for a scene, or a moment, we’d create bits from different movies like the cover of the Criterion release of Ozu, the locked reverse shot so the distance between characters looks identical.  Also, Edward Yang’s a Brighter Summer day, the cover of the Criterion release is Jimmie’s clothes on the floor, the colour and light.

Our cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra really understood. There was a peculiar light the first week of the shoot, we were up against our schedule and had to be outside in peak hours in the middle of the day in the heat. The light was harsh, looking garish and it created weird shadows. So, Adam used reflectors and mirrors harnessing in the power of the sun.  So those daytime exteriors created a painterly look. It turned out to be positive.

The film is about male friendship and I am guessing based on your friendship with Jimmie?

We created the film together, we talked about our families and were very close. We shared a lot and when we did the scene in the bus with Jimmie’s mother, Jimmie co-directed. It was touching to see a son making her feel so comfortable. We went on walks and talked about it and the relationship with Jimmie’s father, we worked through Jimmie’s feelings for him.  He was in a different place then compared to now.  We started working on the film five years ago, started thinking about it maybe seven or eight years ago. It may have been earlier.  Half our lives and friendship.

Will you follow up this story?

We definitely plan on making more movies together. Probably Jimmie an I will work together for a long, long time.

by @annebrodie

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