“People aren’t just one thing.” Perhaps the most concise quote from Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is also the most powerful. In addition, it feels like a strong signpost for the up-and-coming actor’s desire not to be boxed in.
Building from Fails’ childhood memories, the cathartic film tells the story of his grandfather’s house, eventually lost to the family once they could no longer afford it. The movie itself was brought to life by crowdfunding – a Kickstarter campaign that eventually drew national attention, as well as that of Hollywood legend Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon, 2012), who took a major role in getting the project off the ground. We caught up with Fails ahead of the film’s UK release to discuss memory, nostalgia, and trying not to get typecast.
How much of your own story did you put into the film?
“The core of the story, about my grandfather’s house, is real. And also, that’s my real mom. That’s something that really happened. A lot of the characters are based on real things and real stuff, but I’m not sure about percentage wise what’s real and what’s not. It’s a very personal story that I put out into the world, I think I prefer to keep it unclear.”
How did you decide what to fictionalise?
“It was a long process coming up with the story. We started obviously with the core of my story, and then we used our imagination to turn things a little. For example, the character that Mike Epps plays, Bobby, that stole my dad’s car – that actually happened. But the fictional part of that is him coming back to pick me up in the same car that he stole from me and my dad. A lot of this stuff came from a real thing, and then we took it further.”
Do you see this as wish fulfilment? Like with the car, would you have wanted to have had a conversation rather than just see them drive past?
“Huh. I’ve never been asked that. I mean, shit, I don’t know man [laughs]. I mean maybe, yeah, maybe I’d talk to them for a minute, maybe ask them why they did that and never came back. So you know, sure. I haven’t got any hard feelings.”
Did you find it intimidating to get this personal on screen?
“Would you feel intimidated by that?”
I normally stay behind the camera, so probably, yes.
“Yeah. So as you can imagine, absolutely. It was definitely a process [laughs]. I’m getting to a point where I’m comfortable enough to do so. Luckily I had good people around me that were encouraging and had my back, but it was definitely intimidating for sure.”
I imagine it takes a lot of trust in the people you’re working with.
“Yeah, there’s no other way that that works.”
I guess this leads us to your collaboration with Joe Talbot. Did you have a relationship with him prior to making the film?
“We’ve been friends probably 13 or 14 years now. We’ve been making movies together since we were kids. And now we’ve moved up to making making actual movies [laughs] you know. We’d walk and talk, create little movies out of stories we told each other about things that happened to us or whatever it was.”
Were there any particular creations that you remember?
“Yeah, we made a movie in high school about going to the suburbs together and meeting some weird girls, based off something that happened to Joe. So it’s just about us having this weird encounter in the suburbs. I’m trying to think of another movie we did. I mean we always did little stuff around the neighbourhood and edited some kinda bullshit together. But that was the one that was really like a movie, in that we actually had to do takes and other stuff.”
Did the process of working on this film together feel different to the scale of the production?
“A bit different, mostly because we gotta be professional around other people! [laughs] It was also stressful ’cause it’s both of our first movies. So we’re trying to act like we’re other people, because this is our only real shot to do it. But we learned a lot about how to work with each other in an environment like that. And essentially made our friendship stronger, at the end of the day.”
In the case of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, it feels like a dream. Not usually the vibe that you would associate with stories about gentrification and social change, so why portray the story this way?
“San Francisco is such a nostalgic city, everyone from here is so prideful about the things that happened here and what made it so unique. And nostalgia is like a dream – you’re dreaming about the past. So this tone sort of naturally worked its way in there. I wanted it to feel like escapism. I feel like the kind of movies I want to make are ones where you can escape from life for a moment.”
I was fascinated by the comment in the film from your father as played by Rob Morgan – when his character asked about you dressing like a white boy. Did you get a lot of shit for dressing differently?
“Yeah, mostly from my dad, people in the older generation. They feel like there’s dressing white and dressing black. You know what I mean? They don’t always understand skateboarding culture, they don’t understand stuff like that.”
You wear the same outfit throughout the whole film. I take it that was lifted from your own wardrobe?
“I mean, I used to dress like that a lot more. I would’ve chosen a different outfit now but it was supposed to be a sort of a tribute to Marlon Brando, this longshoreman look.”
Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
“Yeah. I’m working on another film that I’m supposed to be starting to shoot in January or February. But it’s looking like it may take a little bit longer. So I mean… that’s… you know, that’s how movies work sometimes. But in the meantime, I’m very picky about the stuff that I make myself a part of. So you know, I want to do something with nuance, I don’t want to do any bullshit and be pigeonholed in doing certain type of roles.”
Has that been hard to come by?
“A little bit, yeah. I mean, that’s why I’d like to collaborate with up-and-coming artists. We’re the future of the business, and we have the most unique voices.”
‘The Last Black Man In San Francisco’ is in cinemas now