“I felt like an outsider in my own city,” says The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s Jimmie Fails

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is one of the best-reviewed indie films of the year, and rightfully so, telling the story of a young man’s search for home in an ever-changing city which has left him behind.

Despite its dreamlike quality and surreal visuals, this story of alienation and nostalgia is based on true events. Jimmie Fails plays himself in this beautiful film, directed and co-written by his childhood friend, Joe Talbot. Outtake had the pleasure of sitting down with Fails ahead of the feature’s London Film Festival premiere.

Courtesy of A24

This film is of course autobiographical, but how closely do you stick to true events and where did you decide to take creative liberties?

Jimmy Fails: There’s a lot in the movie that happened to me in my life. The core story of my grandfather and the house is true, and that’s my real mum in the film.

I thought she looked so much like you!

Yeah! Then like, the Bobby character is based on a real guy, my dad’s friend who actually did run off with his car. And then it’s that imagination part of, what if he came back and picked you up in the car he stole from your dad? That’s fictional but that’s something I had thought about. It toes the line, but everything is emotionally real. It’s all coming from a real place.

The film really embraces a dream-like visual direction, is that to represent the story existing in memories?

I mean, we’re [himself and Joe Talbot] just nostalgic people. We come from a city that’s very nostalgic and we love its history and old architecture, and all those sorts of things. That’s just how we are, so it’s how it came out in our filmmaking. It wasn’t something that we specifically were like, “Oh, we have to make it dreamlike.” Though you do have to keep that kind of youthful imagination. We’re big on that.

How did you and Joe meet?

We met when I was probably ten years old. We just lived in the same neighbourhood, basically down the street from each other in the projects, and there’s a park that everyone always went to and we pretty much met there.

I suppose you wouldn’t really want to trust anyone else with your story.

No, definitely not. Absolutely.

Courtesy of A24

Did the two of you have similar experiences of San Francisco?

Yes and no. We agree on a lot of the same things, but we definitely had different upbringings. You know, his parents are a lot different than mine. We just had different lives, but definitely a similar experience of San Francisco. Growing up in the city, you experience a lot of the same things. We definitely think on the same wavelength, so there’s something to be said about that.

There’s really touching commentary on gentrification and people being pushed out of their homes and communities. How important was it for you to bring attention to this issue?

You know, the people make the city what it is. So we had to mention it, we had to bring light to the fact that people are being pushed out. People make the city, but new people move in and they don’t care about the people who were there or about the culture and the history of the city. I felt it was definitely important because, in a lot of ways, I felt like an outsider in my own city for a while – just because more and more people that I knew weren’t there, more and more places that I grew up with were being torn down. It’s definitely a big part of the change.

It does seem like a universal experience, because very few cities are exempt from those changes.

That’s part of the reason why the movie’s brought me here, for example. It’s so universal that people can relate to it wherever they live… home means a lot of things for a lot of people. That’s pretty universal.

Did making this film feel cathartic in dealing with those feelings of alienation?

It was therapeutic in a lot of ways, and helped me deal with a lot of things that I hadn’t dealt with. Things like that. So yeah, you know, that’s also why I like to act. You get to go to these places and escape, and all these real emotions will come up. When you go through those experiences, I think you always come out of it being a little better, a little more mature. I definitely matured a lot.

Courtesy of A24

How involved were you with the writing?

There was a writers’ room, so lots of people – me, Joe, Rob mainly – and a few other people just throwing out ideas, and Joe and Robert [Richert] actually put it down on paper. But yeah, the story, a lot of it comes from me, and they would always be checking back with me like, “oh, what about this?” It was heavily collaborative and there weren’t really these set roles, everybody did a little bit everything. It’s just that you have to put certain names down for certain jobs.  

And this started off as a concept trailer, right? Were you intending for it to turn into a feature?

Yeah, we were. We were a little naïve, but we were intending it to turn into a feature eventually. But, you know, we were just at a point where we were both kind of depressed and didn’t know what to do with our lives, basically. So we just did the trailer and luckily, we got the right attention, which helped us build our team and get the movie made. We just wanted to do something.

How did the production company Plan B get involved?

We met a Plan B producer at Sundance [where the short first premiered] and she was super interested. She saw our short film that we did there, and the next thing we knew they’d taken the pitch over to A24, and it was just a domino effect from then.

Courtesy of A24

Two really good production companies to have on your side.

For sure, A24 is the best. Just new, fresh ideas, innovative stuff. That’s why I like them so much. I hope I’ll get to work with them some more.

Any future projects you’ve got in mind?

I’m doing another movie in a few months with a guy, James Gallagher. I can’t go too deep into it, but it’s an indie film and it’s a very gentle, very warm story. Plus the director is a really good guy so I’m excited to work on that. It was the first thing I got that was super interesting. I want to build my catalogue and create my own artistry, I don’t want to just settle for bullshit just because it pays.  

Do you think you’ll make another film based on your life, some time down the line?

I don’t know, maybe. As of right now though, I’m pretty done giving a lot of my personal life to the world. Maybe down the line… but we had to tell this story. We wanted to tell this story.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is out 25th October.

Laura Potier

Co-founder and editor of Outtake, feel free to drop me a line with any questions or article pitches at laura@outtakemag.co.uk