The title of this film could have been “A Tale of Two Dreams.” One a dream of a young man to reclaim his family home. One a dream of keeping communities from being eaten up through gentrification that is going on across the country.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is based on the true story of Jimmie Fails, who also stars in the film. Jimmie’s family lived in a beautiful Victorian home in a great San Franciscan neighborhood but lost the house. Jimmie’s dream is to buy back the house and restore it to its glory. Is he living a fantasy, or can he make it happen? Jimmie and his best friend Montgomery seek to find a way to make both of their dreams come true. Have their lives and community changed so much that it’s a dream deferred?
I recently was able to sit down with Jimmie Fails and Director Joe Talbot to chat about the film.
Do me a favor. Introduce me to and tell me about Montgomery.
Joe: So, Montgomery…there was a guy named Prentice who we met — God, probably over five or six years ago now. He was the first inspiration for the character that would become Montgomery. He’s a Bay Area original, a unique guy. So, he first inspired the idea of what a potential friendship could look like between Jimmie and him. And then over the next few years we developed that character — sure, there was inspiration from other people that we met along the way. And then, by the time we met Jonathan, there was no one that felt quite right when we auditioned him. And then Jonathan came in and he was like an angel. It was like exactly — he understood San Francisco and he understood this particular person — what he means in that place, how he comes from that place in a really unique way. And so, as director, it was beautiful to just sit back and watch him and Jimmie develop what became a very real friendship off-screen as well as onscreen.
And you can kind of tell that. When I was watching the film — the film has so many different layers.
Jimmie, your layer was pretty solid for me. I liked Jimmie…And I liked what Jimmie wanted — his mind and what he wanted to do, and the awakening that he had at the end. Montgomery had so many layers. But there were some cracks in there that I had to stop and say, “Is he autistic? Is he a savant? Is he off?”
Joe: If not more. He’s a great observer of people. That’s sort of part of what he’s doing throughout the film. And not only that, I think he engages them in ways that show that he really sees them and not, I think, so often people walk around San Francisco and only show, or get to show, one side of themselves. And I think what Montgomery does — especially in the way Jonathan played it — is he’s seen the different sides of people — seeing everyone in all their complexities.
Jimmie, you seem to be the thread, even with the friendship. You were focused. You seemed to know. I did have a question, though. Did Jimmie ever live in the house, or was this a story his father and aunt — that he had heard about the house?
Jimmie: You mean did I ever actually live in the house?
Yes, did the character Jimmie or you ever live in the house?
Jimmie: Yeah, well, yeah. It’s based on a true story. So, there’s parts of the movie that are fictional for the story. But that part — that is very autobiographical. I did live in the house. I lost my house. That’s the whole reason I’m obsessed with this, because I want to get it back and restore it to what I remember, basically. So, yeah, I did live in the house. The character did, too.
So, tell me about this Jimmie sitting here, the Jimmie character, and the story — the intertwining of the story. Am I making any sense on that question?
Jimmie: Yeah, I see what you mean. Obviously, I’ve lived — there’s a lot of parts in my life that we didn’t put into the film because it was more about me and the house, and what the house represented for me. So, in terms of that — and there are a lot of the same sentiments. I’m a little more naïve as the character thinking, and the obsession with the house, and painting, and other people’s doing it and stuff that like that. And that’s for the story, but that’s very much my sentiment and it was for a very long time.
That being said, I think — yeah, that’s the parallel between both of us — the character and myself. Does that answer your question?
Joe: And I think, too, one thing we talked about a lot — the first chapter of the script was angrier because we were working through our own feelings about San Francisco and so I think, in a way, over time, over years spent digging in and trying to develop a story that was reflective of our feelings in the city — if you worked through certain things, too, that might have been more true five years ago — emotions you had…that have since evolved into other feelings. That was part of the process — was just going through those motions.
The guys on the street — I loved them. I really did like them. When they first started, I said, “Oh, okay, here’s some gang brothers, or whatever.” But then toward the end, “Now, these are just some brothers, and this is the way they interact. Were these guys created for the movie or were they part of your life?
Jimmie: No, they’re from the city. No, they represent — they’re all based on real people and they represent city natives and people that are part of the neighborhood that you grew up in. So, yeah, they’re all very real. We grew up with all of those guys.
Well, I enjoyed then — what I liked about it, too, was they all were different.
Joe: I’m glad that that came through because that’s how they are in real life. Jordan is always talking…he’s always roasting, and so a lot of those lines where he’s — he’s the one that cries on Jimmie eventually. But when he’s talking smack, that’s what he does in real life. He’s one of the quickest people that I’ve ever met at that.
But all those guys, in their own ways, even Jamal who plays Kofi, he was framed for murder and was in jail for six and a half years — the best part of his life in his 20s. And he got out. And when we met him, he was working in an after-school program and he auditioned for the role and he said, “This character’s me. I understand this need to feel hard, that pressure that’s on this character.” And so, I think that was part of it, too, going back to how you initially described it. We often see the first dimension of these guys — what they put out in the world. But having grown up with people that are under those pressures, we see the different sides that the media doesn’t always show. You see those same guys crying, scared, or just being emotional in a way that the first dimension doesn’t always show. So, it was important to show the depth in each of them.
You were very solid. From the time you hit the screen to the time you wrote that note — you were solid. I can understand why — even though I thought you were crazy, going and painting the house and doing all of this. And I kept saying in my mind, why doesn’t he just tell them, “My grandfather built the house. I want to make sure the house stays okay.”
Joe: I think that they might have still thought he was crazy…But I think even so, that’s part of what, in the film, obviously, produce character. He uses this as justification for what he’s doing. I think part of what the film wants to show is that in some ways it doesn’t matter whether he builds it or not. Jimmie still loves his house. He still deserves his house. Doesn’t all the work that he spent over the course of his life mean more than just the fact that someone else can come in and buy it? That’s not love. He really does love it.
At one point I thought that the house represented when your family was a complete unit.
Jimmie: Exactly. No, exactly. You’re the first person that’s actually pinpointed that. So, thank you.
How was it revisiting? What made you decide to go this route, to do this movie about this?
Jimmie: People responding to… You know, we did a concert trailer in 2014. That was me narrating my grandfather’s story about how he built it and all this stuff. We got a lot of responses from people all over the country, some even out of the country, saying how much they related to the story. That was a big moment for me, personally. That made me feel like the story needed to be told. I’m never one to just tell my story. I told my story to Joe and that’s where the idea came from, but I’m never one to just be out there putting myself out there like that. So that was a big moment for me.
Joe: I think just seeing that. Yeah, seeing the… Jimmie’s really brace to do that — to put himself out there in that way. And I think that it has an impact on all of us, I’m sure. I imagine especially for you, Jim, when people are responding and saying these things are happening it can — to me and my city, and I recognize this — it can be both encouraging and I think, at times, a little scary because it feels like the whole city was on our backs. We had to get this right. A lot of people are going through some version of what Jimmie did in San Francisco.
I’m a high school dropout. Jimmie’s only ever starred in the movies me and my brother made growing up and to now have a movie on-screen and executive produced by Brad Pitt.
You have a few heavy hitters in this film
Joe: Danny Glover, and Mike Epps and Tichina. To work with these people, he grew up watching is unbelievable in some ways. But I think it both speaks to how universal Jimmie’s story really is and the fact that after years and years of work sometimes it does pay off.
Forgive me — San Francisco was just in the background to me. You were in the foreground and I’m going to tell you why. I’m doing my ancestry. And you, talking about your grandfather and going into your history and getting the spirit of your history — that is what really hit me about it because as people of color we are who came before us. And you taking the pride that your grandfather — whether you knew it he did it or not — but that was the story and that’s…I don’t even know if your father really knew that it was just a story and they just passed it down, but it’s something that was passed down and I got really into that — of the ancestry and the feeling of pride because so many black people feel ashamed of whatever came before. So that’s one of the things that I related to. To be honest, San Francisco is a beautiful city, but your story and your spirit came to the forefront.
Jimmie: Thank you. That’s beautiful, man. Yeah.
Yeah. When you got to a point and you said, “Okay, I’m going to do something.” What was it in your heart that you knew you wanted to do? Was it to do a film? Was it to let people know about San Francisco? Was it to just breathe without this house being on your back? What is it that you wanted…?
Jimmie: I always wanted the house, really. That was the thing for the longest time — how can I get this house back or how can I even get a house in San Francisco? What can I do to be able to afford to live in this place that is becoming more and more unaffordable, specifically in that neighborhood, though, because that neighborhood is where my grandfather was well-known. That was my thing.
And my last question — is there anything that you have not been asked that you want to put out about this film that you want to make sure people know about this film, and Jimmie, and whatever?
Joe: Yeah. I’m going to try and get two things in there.
One is it is inspired by parts of Jimmie’s real life. But Jimmie is the best storyteller that I’ve ever met. And that storytelling comes through in his writing, but it also comes through in his acting. And so, I think one of the ways that’s shown is that people can’t determine what was an exact real event and what wasn’t — just speaks to his acting and his story-telling abilities. So, I hope that when people consider this movie they don’t just say “Wow, that’s the guy who it’s based on his life, playing himself.” That, already, is, I think, a remarkable thing that he did. But even more remarkably is how well he blends being able just to act, having never gone to school for this with the parts that channeling from reality. So, I hope all the future filmmakers who want to case him understand just how talented he is.
And the other thing I want to say is that our group, as a whole — we had people that believed in this movie that came together to become sort of a film family around this project. Years ago, before Plan B, before Tichina and Danny, and anyone even heard of it — and those people worked countless hours to help us develop this. We all learned to make a movie together in doing this. So that collective — which we call long shot, because it felt like it was going to be a long shot to get this movie made — are some of the most important heroes in this production that never get the shine they deserve. My brother Nat being one of them, and our producer Khaliah Neal, Rob Rickert, Luis Alfonso— so I’m excited for them to get some of the shine, as well, because they poured themselves into this and they don’t get to reap the benefits that Jimmie and I do.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a very interesting film. It is a little slow in the beginning but quickly finds its rhythm. I was impressed with the theme, story, and acting. I would you suggest you see this film. It is not for small children.
Until next time keep your EYE to the sky!