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Childhood friends muse on gentrification with the soulful 'Last Black Man in San Francisco'

By Thomas Floyd The Washington Post
Jimmie Fails stars as himself in "The Last Black Man In San Francisco," an A24 release now playing in Austin. [Contributed by A24]

"The Last Black Man in San Francisco" began as a pipe dream of a movie pitch, from a high school dropout filmmaker and a star with little experience beyond the student theater stage.

"It felt almost insurmountable," director Joe Talbot says, "the odds of us being able to make this movie."

The project began to gain steam in 2015, when Talbot and actor Jimmie Fails, whose life story inspired the movie, launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film. But the childhood friends first discussed the concept over a decade ago, when they were teenagers strolling through the hills of San Francisco.

"Just walking and talking — that's how we come up with everything," Fails says. "It was a joke at first, literally. I was just telling him about my life story, and he was like, 'Wow, let's make a movie about that!'"

Eventually, Oscar darling A24 signed on to distribute the film, Brad Pitt joined as a producer and Talbot won the best director prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Now the film is opening to critical acclaim as part of an expanding national rollout.

Told with grandeur, soulful style and an understated comic sensibility, the film follows a fictionalized version of Fails (played by himself) as he, with the help of his loyal friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), tries to reclaim a Victorian home built by his grandfather. In doing so, the character hopes to find his place in a city consumed by the sprawl of Silicon Valley.

Fails, in real life, spent the early days of his childhood at a similar home in the city's Fillmore District, living there with his extended family before his aunt lost ownership of the house when he was 4. The upheaval scattered his family to housing projects across the city, though he would return to the old home from time to time and reflect on a transformed neighborhood with a dwindling black population.

In addition to starring in the film, Fails shares a story credit with Talbot, who co-wrote the script with Rob Richert.

"Jimmie is the best storyteller that I've ever met," Talbot says. "It wasn't even just the things he had been through in his life, but it was also just the way he was able to contextualize it and tell it as a compelling story."

To veteran actors such as Rob Morgan, who plays Fails' father, James Sr., and Tichina Arnold, who plays his aunt Wanda, a movie from a first-time filmmaker with an unknown lead actor represented a roll of the dice. But the script's poignant meditation on gentrification struck a chord for the pair, as did a story that tapped into more universal themes of friendship, family and self-acceptance.

"It's not often that scripts come across our desks that are written so poetic and so honest from our perspective, as a black man and a black woman in Hollywood," Morgan says. "Even if it's a well-accomplished writer-director that has 15 films under their belt."

"You have this story being told through the eyes of a black man, but everybody is able to understand it," Arnold adds.

The film ultimately is a bittersweet love letter to a bygone time and place, scrawled by two San Francisco natives who have a complicated relationship with their hometown, and an understanding that deep affection can be the precursor to heartbreak.

"There's so many different things that you can pick up on — it's really just about whatever you can relate to the most, I suppose," Fails says. "It all starts leading the way with, you know, just leading with love."

'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'

Starring: Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Danny Glover

Director: Joe Talbot

Rated: R for brief nudity, language and drug use

Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute

Theaters: Alamo South Lamar, Violet Crown