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Friday, December 8, 2023

Joe Talbot On The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Joe Talbot is a high school dropout who never went to film school, but his success as a storyteller.

He hails from a family of journalists in San Francisco, who used to make raw films on accessible equipment.

For his feature film directorial, he creates a love letter and critique to the city which he grew up in.

The Last Blackman In San Francisco based on the life of his best friend, Jimmie Fails, who also plays the main lead. 

It is a story which the pair talked about long before conceiving it into a movie. Now, it is backed by A24 and Brad Pitt’s production company – Plan B Entertainment.

The film is a cinematic delight, an inventive meditation on art, architecture, black culture and gentrification in California’s Bay Area.

Filme Shilmy managed to catch up with Joe at the London Film Festival’s filmmaker afternoon tea.

It revolves around the Black American community striving to make a success of their lives. For you, as an outsider, through what lens did you view this story?

I don’t know if I put it in that exact way.

But historically if you’re talking about Black films that have been made by white directors, it’s a good question to ask them about their connection to the story.

I think it’s a totally reasonable thing. Even I’d want to know as well.

In our case, it’s important that the work comes out as collaboration and so it’s not just me helicoptering in and telling a story that I don’t have a connection with.

Jimmy and I, growing up in San Francisco have a trust (not only as a black and white man) but as true friends.

That connection is very critical because it’s not just about his experience as an African American San Franciscan, but about his actual life, which is imbued into the film.

Even the scene with his mother is actually his mother.

From my perspective, it was really important to make sure that we are creating something together and that went beyond Jimmy and I. It extended to our team.

You humanise the house and skateboard. How challenging is it for a filmmaker to make objects seem like additional characters?

That’s really interesting.

We used to joke that the skateboard is like Jimmie’s horse he’s like a cowboy who rides on his horse into a sunset (laughs).

When he breaks his skateboard, it’s not just this object. There is a deeper meaning for him.

Historically (and I suppose this is true in Jimmie’s life), the skateboard is your transport to different places in San Francisco.

In the late 90s/early 2000s it was skating Mecca. In fact, when Jimmie first rode on it, he discovered different parts of the city which he wasn’t previously aware of it.

That held a lot of importance.

The film centres mostly around the themes of ‘identity’ and what we define as ‘home’. How personal is this theme to you?

We always say that the film is a love story between Jimmy and his house, which actually came from home.

Not only is it from Jimmie’s story (most of which in the film is from his life), he did live in a house which he believed his grandfather built.

That story was something which held very close to him throughout his life especially during difficult periods.

By the time we were making the film, Jimmie was living at my parents’ house (where I was living too), it was the only way we could live in San Francisco.

My parents were journalists, they’ve written books and raised us. There was always an ‘open door’ policy where people came in and out.

In fact, it’s also the same place where we ran our kick-starter campaign before we could afford an office.

To think of what it would be like to lose that house, that meant so much to us, is incredibly disorienting.

Whatever fears/anxiety I have around that was probably tenfold for Jimmy to have lost it just as a kid when his whole family was living there.

‘Home lives in this complicated place in our imaginations. Now, I don’t think I could afford to live in San Francisco I’d love to buy a home in some ways.

It seems unfathomable. 

We are now seeing more coloured representation in Hollywood. How do you hope your movie contributes towards this?

This representation definitely has been a long time coming.

With regards to our film, Khaliah Neal (producer of the film) has supported us way before A24 and Plan B Entertainment came on board.

She worked at Focus Features for a number of years as an assistant to James Schamus.

She took this big risk and decided to become an independent producer… I was amongst the first people she reached out to.

Khaliah was the veteran amidst our group of first-timers. She taught us a lot. 

I sincerely hope she gets more recognition because she really did take a big risk on us.

We didn’t have much momentum at that point at all. 

Now, after making this film, she is working at Michael B Jordan’s company and is working on a new slate of incredible movies.

So that is something I’m hopeful about.

The fact that she started off wanting to be a journalist, the kind of stories she wants to tell (I think) is really important. That’s her approach to materials.

Khaliah is an example of someone who I think can make work that wouldn’t be made otherwise. 

The film revolves around how Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) dreams of reclaiming the beautiful late 19th century home his grandfather built in the heart of the city, before harder times and changing demographics forced his family out.

He and best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) scheme to make this happen while Jimmie annoys the sitting tenants with guerrilla gardening on the beloved Fillmore house.

A skateboarder and dreamy, suit-wearing playwright, the pair are at odds with the tough guys around the neighbourhood and spend their time working to deliver Jimmie’s dream while living with Mont’s grandfather (Danny Glover).

The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s UK Premiere takes place at the BFI London Film Festival.

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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