Reading the script for The Last Black Man in San Francisco was like experiencing an earthquake, actor Johnathan Majors says. Strange at first, even surreal.
“The whole ground is shifting. If you look at it...it actually seems impossible,” Majors tells me over the phone. “At the end of the script. It was like, things have changed. Things are different. I’m different after reading this, people will be different after viewing this.”
Currently playing in select cities, The Last Black Man in San Francisco has been drawing this kind of response from critics and audiences around the world after debuting at Sundance in January, where it won awards for Best Directing by Joe Talbot, who also co-wrote the film, and a Special Jury Prize for Creative Collaboration. The film is based on Jimmie Fails’ fight to own—and keep—his childhood home in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco, known for a time as the “Harlem of the West” for its prominent black residents and black-owned businesses. Written as a modern-day Odyssey, Fails—who co-wrote and plays himself in the film—is our Odysseus, a displaced hero trying to navigate his way back to a house he’s become fiercely devoted to. By his side is his best friend, Montgomery, played by Majors.
Fails’ desire to stay in San Francisco is specific and personal. But when he leans against the porch of the house in the Fillmore, staring off into a cool Bay Area night, and quietly pronounces, “I’m not leaving, I’m the last one left,” it feels like a political act. It’s also a proclamation layered with multiple truths: He’s the last of his family in the city, the last black man on a block that used to belong to a thriving black community, and one of a dwindling number of black people in San Francisco.
The film joins a growing list of films in which the Bay Area plays a central character. Perhaps not coincidentally, the most prominent of these in the last few years, Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You, and Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe have addressed issues of race, identity, authenticity and belonging. Whether directly or implicitly, these films point toward a city rife with tensions and demographic changes; a city forced to reckon with differing, conflicting versions of itself.
What makes Last Black Man so stunning are these subtle but profound tonal shifts, made possible through Fails and Talbot’s deep knowledge and empathy for their characters and the city they’re from. What emerges from that empathy is myriad: through its mix of dreamlike sequences and fidelity to real-life details and experiences (the film is laden with Bay Area Easter eggs), the movie captures all the strange, surreal tones of displacement. The film’s commitment to the vulnerability and the preciousness of the city’s black inhabitants also sets up one of the most tender, refreshing, and complete renderings of black masculinity depicted in a major motion picture. The latter wasn’t an explicit aim, according to Fails and Talbot, but a natural byproduct of the pair’s longtime friendship, experiences, and approach to filmmaking. The end result may not hit you until well after the credits roll: Unable to preserve a house, Fails and Talbot hoped to preserve San Francisco itself.
“You always want to try and preserve your hometown because it did so much for you,” Fails told me one recent afternoon in New York City. “This movie is like something that I owed to my city.”
The numbers might tell you that San Francisco is not a city of or for black men, or for black people in general. Black residents make up just 6 percent of the city’s population (less than half of what it was in the 1970s); it’s among the lowest of all major American cities. This is true, also, of the way San Francisco has been depicted in films until very recently. What Talbot and Fails sought to do in The Last Black Man in San Francisco was pay a living tribute to very real experiences and very real people in a city that has already changed significantly since they stopped filming. This sense of change—the doom of it, and the finality of it—permeates every corner of the film, like the moment Jimmie, shaken after a confrontation with his father, is met by an old, naked white man while sitting at a bus stop. It’s a funny contrast, until moments later, when a trolley full of boorish tech bros spot the old white man and began chanting, “This guy fucks!” in unison, before the trolley rolls back offscreen. The scene crystallizes one key fact for the audience: however far apart Jimmie and the old white man are, they are united in one thing: they are the city’s, though the city is no longer theirs.
If moments like this feel surreal, it’s necessarily so: losing a home, losing an entire city, is a surreal experience.
“These people are in somewhat of a war zone right?” Majors said of the characters. “Our homes could be gone at any moment....They’re moving and doing what they have to do to survive.”
The script started from a place of rage, Talbot says. But with each subsequent draft, he and Fails saw themselves growing more compassionate for the characters they were creating, as well as the city itself. While white gentrifiers and their operators are depicted in the film—the tech bros getting trashed on a trolley, white women complaining about San Francisco on a city bus, and an old childhood acquaintance-turned-real-estate-vulture tossing Fails’ furniture to the curb—there is no true villain in the film.
“San Francisco, at its best, is a city of empathy and complexity,” Talbot says. “Even our relationship with the city itself is one that is both—we’re critical of it and we love it, all at once.”
To tell a more complete story, one of the “raw San Francisco” Fails grew up in, required that empathy, Fails adds. And while there is still plenty of rage coursing through the film, there’s also humor, melancholy, and absurd bursts of joy—sometimes, simultaneously.
Among the most striking examples is a scene involving a group of young men perennially posted up on the sidewalk outside Montgomery’s home—Talbot refers to them as his “Greek chorus.” Throughout the film, they’re lovingly captured by the camera: their incessant banter and roasting of each other captured in slow-motion and closeups. One night, a member of the group, Kofi (played by Jamal Trulove), draws his peers’ ire for not being tough enough. As another member challenges him, the rest of the group egg Kofi to fight back. It’s clear no one wants to, but the ever-mounting tension has to go somewhere, and moviegoers brace themselves for a fight that seems inevitable.
At this point, aspiring playwright Montgomery, who had been watching the scene from afar, intercedes, clapping his hands and applauding the men on their performances, delivering notes on how they could improve. It’s a masterful disruption, with Mont, the neighborhood weirdo and frequent butt of the chorus’s jokes, comically diffusing the tension and deconstructing the dynamic at the same time.
While Talbot credits Majors for coming up with the scene’s resolution, as well as substantially shaping the character of Montgomery, the scene’s origins were borne out of a very specific experience from Talbot’s childhood—in fact, one of the actors in the chorus was involved in the real-life incident the scene is based on. As Talbot remembers it, his friends were trying to teach one of their own to man up.
“The person who was hitting him was crying,” Talbot recalls. “And people were pleading with the person [who inspired Kofi] to hit him back, and they were crying. It was just like everyone was trying to perform this idea of toughness because no one wanted to be seen as not being tough.”
He pauses. “I think that day always stuck with me because everyone felt awful about it.”
Talbot shares that since the film’s debut, many men have approached him and Fails, commenting on “how nice it feels to see men be vulnerable on screen.”
“It’s unfortunate how rare that is,” he notes. Those depictions of vulnerability, as well as the movie’s authenticity and fidelity to small, telling details, spoke as much to the actors as it now does to the audience.
“I always say, ‘black men are everything,’” Tichina Arnold, who plays Fails’ aunt Wanda, told me. “There’s so many facets to a black man. He’s vulnerable. He’s strong. He’s weak sometimes. He’s all of these things. And we don’t normally get to see that on the big screen.”
Though the actress has spent sizable portions of her career working with all-black casts, Arnold called the film “refreshing” and a “breath of fresh air,” noting she doesn’t often come across roles that are as well-written, and written specifically for a black woman to play.
But perhaps no character better speaks to the film’s deep sense of empathy—and its faithfulness to the complexity of its characters—than James Fails Sr., father of Jimmie, played by Rob Morgan. The actor knows all too well the pain of being kicked out of a home; he was working at Bear Stearns and had just bought a home in Brooklyn when the company collapsed in 2008 during an industry-wide financial crisis. Though the turn of events ended up spurring his acting career, Morgan is still struck by the timing of it all.
“This neighborhood I’ve been in for 20-plus years—and then, the moment I try to buy something in it, I get booted out,” he says.
But what drew Morgan to the role was something much smaller and intimate—the different ways James Sr. presented himself throughout the film.
When we first see James Sr., he is watching Jimmie from his apartment window, his mouth working through a handful of sunflower seeds. A longtime hustler, James Sr. looks disheveled, chain-smoking as he cuts out the covers for bootleg DVDs. But in a later scene, when Montgomery and Jimmie host a play in the Fillmore home, James shows up looking downright dapper: his sweats replaced with a suit, top hat, and cane. Morgan appreciated what that little wardrobe change indicated about the character and the lineage he drew from.
“I was really excited about that one detail because it showed that yes, when we’re in the house, we are who we are. We do our thing,”Morgan noted “But then also, when we step out the house, you know how to step it up so that if the opportunity for success was to come our way. We’d have a better chance of catching it.”
Of all the main characters, James Sr. could easily draw the most condemnation from the audience; as a father he’s more prickly than tender, more absent than present, and a lie he tells his son—that his grandfather built the home he recalls so fondly—ends up being foundational, fundamentally shaping Jimmie’s desires and sense of self. But Morgan points out that the lie served a clear, specific, and loving purpose.
“[James] says, ‘I did that so your little ass could dream.’ And actually that struck me,” Morgan said. “I felt like ‘hey man, this father wants you to be able to dream so you can get it.’ ”
He compares the lie to the recent college admissions scandal, where rich parents bought their kids’ way into elite universities.
“We don’t have that opportunity. We don’t have that kind of access,” Morgan continues. “So I have to do that from where I’m at. And from where I’m at, if I can say to my child, ‘hey you can do it too,’ by telling him your grandfather built his house—that’s what I got to use.”
Fails is struck by how universal a film based on his specific loss could be. As I leave the theater after a recent screening, I overhear a small group of black moviegoers exchanging stories about drives they used to take with their families. “That used to be your grandmother’s house,” a parent would say. Or, “that’s where your Auntie used to live.” Through each neighborhood, their elders were charting for them a history of movement and displacement; an odyssey many black Americans can trace in their own lives.
It’s also a story that’s impossible to tell without accepting all the vulnerability that comes along with it. So, when, toward the end of the film, Arnold as Aunt Wanda delivers a sharp rebuke of the city—literally, “Fuck San Francisco”—to Fails, it feels earned. Who but someone so in love, so committed to a thing, who has fought so fiercely to stay in it, deserves to say it more?
The future of San Francisco, like so many other American cities, is unclear. Even Talbot and Fails, who still live in the city and stayed with Talbot’s family in order to make The Last Black Man in San Francisco, are uncertain about how long they can continue to live and make art there—though both certainly hope to.
“I wake up every day feeling so lucky to have grown up there, and there’s also parts of San Francisco and it’s history that disgust me,” Talbot muses. But that same history is nevertheless inspiring.
“I think there’s a lot of other stories about San Francisco that can be told,” Fails says.
“Specific ones. Especially about the history. There’s so much history.”