Everybody hates San Francisco right now. “San Francisco broke America’s heart,” The Washington Post declared last month. “This city is dead,” says a prototypical white yuppie as she rides a Muni bus in the new film The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
“You don’t get to hate San Francisco. You don’t get to hate it unless you love it,” answers Jimmie Fails, a character played by the actor Jimmie Fails. The scene comes toward the end of the film, which is loosely based on Fails’ real life growing up in San Francisco.
It’s a moment both cutting and generous, clarifying the tension at the heart of the film, this city, this country, this time. To hate San Francisco may be trendy, but outsiders and newcomers rolling their eyes at homelessness, rising rents (average one-bedroom: $3,700 a month), and tilting skyscrapers haven’t earned their disdain. They haven’t been here, fighting to hold on to a city as it whirls around them.
On the other hand, Fails and his writing partner and best friend, Joe Talbot, who directed the movie, can lay claim to some resentment. Hours before the film was set to premiere in front of a local audience, WIRED sat down with them and other cast members inside the Fairmont Hotel, high atop San Francisco’s poshest hill, full of mansions built by railroad barons during the city’s original economic boom, to talk about how the tech industry is bulldozing the city they’ve always called home.
“It’s a very strange time to be from San Francisco,” Talbot says. “I'm watching the only city I've ever lived in change, and you can feel powerless. What do you do about that? Those mechanisms feel so large.” What they did was make a movie, an ode to a city slipping away—but one that also, in the right light, at the right house party, can still feel like the old days.
Born and raised in SF, the two friends met at Precita Park in the Mission district when they were in high school. At the time, Fails was living in a group home and Talbot at his parents’ house in the Mission, where kids from all over came and went, making art and music. Seeing each other at parties and basketball games, they began to have this feeling they should be friends. “There was this silent kind of acknowledgement,” Talbot says. “You're proud so you don't want to be like, ‘Hey, do you want to be friends?’ But you're kind of thinking that.” One night, they finally talked—and the talking didn’t stop. They stayed up past Fails’ curfew, and when he called the group home to explain the reason he was late, they didn’t believe him. “They were like, Yeah sure, you're having a talk? Boys are having a heart to heart? Yeah sure,” Fails says. They’ve been talking ever since.
One result of their friendship is the film, which other cast members refer to as a poem. During the five years of production, Fails lived in Talbot’s parents’ house. As they came up with the idea and worked to get the film made, they’d walk up to the top of Bernal Heights near where they first met. They’d look out at the changing skyline, telling stories and creating art as a way to hold onto some ineffable San Francisco-ness amid the change. “This recent wave we're seeing through here is more like a gold rush. You're not coming to be a part of reality. You're coming to disrupt it. You have to take from it. It's a land grab. Literally,” Talbot says, noting that when they were scouting locations for the film, they’d find a place they loved only to return days later and find it razed to the ground to make way for new condos.
The film chronicles Fails’ quest to recapture a physical part of the city that was once his. Though it’s fictionalized, and he prefers not to say exactly which scenes are true, the onscreen Fails shares a strikingly similar backstory with the real-life 24-year-old. Talbot calls it “Jimmie’s story.” It is, but it’s also the larger story of how San Francisco has pushed black culture to the margins, forced black San Franciscans over the bridge to the East Bay (and farther). In that way, it’s the story of gentrification, of a culture under attack.
As a young boy, Fails lived with his father in a house in the Fillmore district, a neighborhood that had gone from predominantly Japanese before World War II to predominantly African American afterward. In the film, the house is a source of family pride, not just because of how lovely it is but because Fails’ father, played by Rob Morgan, has told Fails the story of how his grandfather built it with his own hands. That fact is central to his character's identity. And it’s why, after they lose the house and Fails moves around the city, living in a car with his dad and then going to a group home and eventually landing in the Bayview/Hunters’ Point (the last majority-black neighborhood in the city) at his best friend’s house, he travels back to the Fillmore to visit his lost paradise. The majestic white Victorian might not be his anymore, but it is his just the same.
The film is a hero’s journey, full of delusion and obsession. Instead of tilting at windmills, Fails lovingly paints a home he can touch but which remains beyond his grasp. Tichina Arnold, who plays Fails’ aunt in the film, says Fails’ quest spoke to her, as someone who grew up middle class in Queens. “No human being wants to feel helpless,” she says. “They want to do good. They want to wake up loving what they do. They want to take care of their families. And to not have the opportunity to get what you had back? It's frustrating. People go through that every day—every minute, there's somebody being displaced from their homes.”
Last Black Man is also a film about the sublimity of nostalgia—how a longing to return to the past can both hurt and sustain you. In the movie, Fails’ nostalgia is almost his undoing. One of the messages is that our myths can hold us together even as they tear us apart. “There was a line in the script, I think they took it out, about how the father goes to these lengths to have the son have the kind of imagination that he can do anything he wants,” Morgan says. “He says, ‘I did this so your little ass could dream.’ That was a powerful moment for me, because I feel like, as black men coming up in America, a lot of us don't have those places or people that encourage us to dream.”
That’s one of the ways the film manages to be hopeful, filled as it is with moments of grace and bravery. The message is intended for old San Franciscans, a reminder of why they love the city so much, why it’s worth fighting for, but it’s also aimed squarely at the new techies wandering around, getting on Silicon Valley buses, staring at their phones, and not really contributing, in the filmmakers’ opinion, to the fabric of the city. “When you're looking at your mobile device or you’re in a car the whole time, you can't really be in contact with the thing you're interacting with. The first part of devotion is attention,” says Jonathan Majors, who plays Fails’ best friend, Montgomery.
That’s the spirit from which Last Black Man was made. “A lot of natives feel like, ‘Fuck you, gentrifiers. Fuck gentrification. Fuck tech.’ We could’ve easily made a movie like that,” Fails says. “But that's not how you want to fight that battle. That's not how you're heard.” “And,” Talbot adds, “that's not the San Francisco way.”
The San Francisco way is to welcome outsiders, to be a haven for weirdos. Though Majors is from New York, Talbot refers to him as an honorary San Franciscan. Being part of this city doesn’t require being from here—the city has always been a magnet for those who didn’t fit in elsewhere. Well, and prospectors coming to get rich. Both motives are fine, as long as you grow to care about the place. Those women on the Muni bus in the film? Even they can become real San Franciscans. If they just cared enough.
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