The Last Black Man in San Francisco is as personal a story as you can get. It stars Jimmie Fails as, well, Jimmie Fails. Together with his best friend Montgomery, the pair try to reclaim the house built by Jimmie’s grandfather which launches them on a poignant odyssey that connects them to their past, even as it tests their friendship and sense of belonging in the place they call home.
If the idea of taking your most sacred memory and turning it into a movie is scary, it wasn’t for Jimmie. He and his childhood best friend and director Joe Talbot “grew up making movies that were based on things that happened in [their] lives”, Jimmie told Digital Spy.
“People were reaching out to us, and telling us that they wanted the story to be told, and it helped us believe that people even wanted to hear about it. Because it was hard to believe that anyone would care.”
Seeing the movie, it’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t care about – and relate to – this story. Fails, though, only considered himself as “one person in a world of however many billion people” so he didn’t think people would care.
“I guess because it’s my life, I lived it – so I didn’t really think that it would be that moving or something. It’s not moving to me, you know? It’s my life.”
As such, a lot of Fails’ life is laced through the film. Even his eccentric best friend Montgomery is based on a friend of his and Talbot’s. And though their friendship is key to the plot, the story is really about Fails and the house.
“One guy [asked], ‘I don’t see why you put no girl… Like how Jimmy and Mont would never talk about any girls. Were they gay?’ If we are? If we were? Then, OK. We weren’t. But it shouldn’t matter.”
Love, at least romantic love, is outside the scope of the story. Fails’ love interest is the house. “Exactly,” Fails agreed.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco explores the ideas of legacy, masculinity (especially in the black community), and of course gentrification. For Fails, these are all linked, and linked to the people in his life.
For storytelling purposes, Fails made certain dramatic choices, in particular about his parents. The character of his mother was played by his actual mother in a poignant and painful scene.
“I think you’ve never really seen a relationship with a mom like that. It’s usually the father that’s kind of distant. It’s true to my life. I thought that it might have been – I don’t know – something different. It’s kind of heartbreaking in a way.”
And as for Fails’ father? “It was pulled from our own experience. To be fair, me and my dad are very good friends. I’m very close with my dad. I wanted to show, you know, little things about how it was being this skateboarder, and how the older black community sometimes doesn’t understand skateboarding and being into other stuff.”
The older generation did things certain ways, Fails explained, and felt that skateboarding was something too ‘other’. For him to become a skateboarder was stepping outside of his world, and into this other world.
This world is precisely what The Last Black Man in San Francisco shows, and it’s populated by “unique characters” but Fails’ choice in who he populated his movie with was deliberate. “We definitely did want to show the different types of black men.
“I’m a black man myself that doesn’t necessarily fall into a certain category that is how we’re portrayed in the mainstream media. So we wanted to change that narrative for sure, by making these characters. Because black men can be so many different things.”
It’s something Fails works towards also in the roles he takes. “I’ve passed on a few roles where I was supposed to be an abusive husband to a singer in the old days. Coming off The Last Black Man, it’s like, I don’t want to be f**king… you know? If I do that, and I do that well, all they’re going to send me is these… I don’t want to be that.”
Which is why Fails’ next project is so exciting to him. It’s the nuance, the blank spaces to fill up, that inspire Jimmie Fails IV. “The main reason I liked this [role] is because he didn’t write the character for a black man. He just wrote the character.
“And then I went out for the character, and he chose me. I just happened to be black. It wasn’t like he had that in mind or something like that. Those are the kinds of roles I want to be doing. It can go either way.”
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is now playing in UK cinemas
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