When I was growing up, there was always an unspoken code between friends who were boys. There was a way we were supposed to act and an expectation that even the closest friendships would be casual and “chill”. Showing vulnerability and emotion was not part of the boy code, which meant that while you could be close friends with another boy, you’d never fully be close enough to truly know them. All this does is enforce a toxic masculine ideal from childhood that haunts us as adults, sometimes leading to devastating consequences.
Beyond exploring the damaging effects that gentrification has to a community, The Last Black Man in San Francisco also explores toxic masculinity and how culture enforces these fatal ideals. Inside this gorgeous, painful, and honest look at the city, we are given the story of a wonderfully atypical male friendship that highlights why the normalized alternative is so toxic.
I talk with the writer/director Joe Talbot and co-writer Jimmie Fails, whose personal experiences inspired the events of the film. We talk about the tragically changing landscape of San Francisco, the effects of toxic masculinity and cultural pressures, the creative team behind the film, and more.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is beyond relatable to the struggles that people of color face, but at the same time it feels deeply personal. How much of what happens in the film is autobiographical?
Jimmie Falls: I like to leave that up to the audience, respectively, but there are a few things that are very autobiographical. A lot of the situations and characters are inspired by real people, so that makes it autobiographical in that way. The Greek Chorus and Kofi’s character, Mike Epps’ character is based on a guy that actually stole my dad’s car, the scene with me and my mom happened and that was actually my mom. Those are a few of the parts of my life that I explored in it.
Joe Talbot: I only say this every 4 or 5 interviews, but Jimmie is a great storyteller. He’s the best storyteller that I’ve ever met. It does him a disservice in a way to think of the film as just being inspired by his life. Obviously, it comes from that and those experiences inform so much of this film, but his creativity and writing ability so that’s part of it too. Collectively taking those stories that served as inspiration but they grew through his imagination and our vision.
I agree. You both definitely brought something really important into the film. Can you tell me about your collaborative process?
JF: It was more than just us two. We had a core team of about 5 or 6 people, and then after that there are a bunch of other people. It obviously takes a lot of people to make a movie, but I think it was important to have it start with us being native San Franciscans and knowing the city like the back of hand, and then having some of the core people be from the East Bay so they can give us other ideas from their different perspectives. We didn’t want it to be all San Franciscans because we were afraid it would all come from a place of anger or be very biased. It was important to have those other perspectives to help push the narrative forward and get the story where it needed to be.
So you ended up creating a community to create this film?
JF: Exactly, it was like a community of artists. It seemed like the last community of artists in the city.
I come from a Mexican background so I know all too well the effects of toxic masculinity and the cultural pressure from them to put you in a box before they lead you to being buried in one. Do you think this is one of the greatest threats facing our society as a whole, especially for young men of color?
JF: Absolutely. I think that goes back to the beginning of time. It’s like a primal instinct for some men, and I think it’s important to try to stray away from that. You have to ask yourself: “What do you get from that?” The truth is that nothing positive ever comes from that. You can reach new levels in yourself, in your art, in life, and in your own relationships if you throw that out the window.
JT: Because of it, so many people we grew up with suffered the ultimate consequences because of it.
JF: There are so many people that would still be here if it wasn’t for that bullshit.
This film also makes a great case for gentrification being one of the biggest enemies of communities by displacing them and erasing their history. I know just how much of a malevolent force it is here in Chicago, but how has it ravaged San Francisco?
JF: Oh yes, I feel like it’s happening the fastest there.
JT: We’re ground zero. I feel like a lot of the cities are looking at what’s happening in San Francisco and using it as a blueprint for how to do it in other parts of the country. It’s a very scary time and you’re exactly right, we’re seeing a threat to regional culture everywhere. The very qualities that define a city, from the architecture to the accents to the food, are being threatened by corporate interests. Even a city like San Francisco, where we grew up on hippie values and activism, now feel like they’re being trumped by a capitalistic wave. It’s the first wave that’s come there seeking gold since the Gold Rush. San Francisco was a sanctuary for many; it was the place people went so that they could finally be themselves. It’s scary to see that even San Francisco can also fall prey to that.
When you were visiting all of these familiar places while filming, did you get a different view of San Francisco?
JT: We just wanted to portray the city that we love and the way that we loved it. It did become increasingly difficult to do that because that San Francisco was disappearing before our eyes. It felt like we were chasing ghosts, trying to make sure we captured the right characters and locations. We wanted to honor them by capturing this and putting it on this platform so that people don’t understand why San Francisco is worth fighting for will be able to see it’s value and understand the importance of the history and why it needs to be preserved.
Joe, your previous film was a short depicting what Trump’s America would look like, and the very core of this film feels like it stands for and fights against everything Trump is doing to America.
JT: We made the short before he was elected, naively thinking he wouldn’t win. Since he has, he’s lit the country on fire. It’s an interesting time for this movie that we made because it’s all about love and empathy, and breaking down some of those barriers that make it hard for men to connect and be emotionally vulnerable. We hope in our own small way that this film can stand in the way of that toxicity.
At the very least it will be a conversation starter, especially among families. I know from personal experience that it’s always the older generation that try to force their ideals onto the younger one, especially as children.
JF: That’s right. That’s part of the reason that racism still exists. It’s the older people instilling it. You’re not born racist, you have to learn it. You’re not born with hate.
There is such love and beauty in the film that showcases both the gorgeous cinematography and the poetic dialogue. Where were some of your film or literally inspirations?
JT: I love Harold and Maude. It’s a very foggy, almost British gothic rendering of the Bay Area. People don’t even realize it’s the Bay Area because it doesn’t feel like it. It uses what some people call less attractive parts of the Bay Area to show it. That movie was very inspirational because it showed how you can still create a beautiful world using a less known side of San Francisco and the Bay at large.
JF: Spike Lee and Do the Right Thing. The world that he creates and how he shows that region.
Just like Spike’s film, yours felt very honest. You depict the good, the bad, the ugly with the beautiful. It doesn’t hold any punches.
JT: That’s great to hear. That’s what we were trying to go for and I’m so glad that it is being received that way.