The city at the heart of Joe Talbot’s new film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, is depicted with equal parts whimsy and despair. The opening images track a little girl, dressed up for school, as she skips along the bay, with a soft oboe score playing on the soundtrack. As she runs, she zips by police tape and men in hazmat suits who are engaged in the cleanup of the toxic water behind her. Quickly, the action turns to Jimmie (played by Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), best friends skateboarding around San Francisco’s historic Fillmore District. Talbot’s camera turns to take in a city half in the past and half in the future, where dilapidated storefronts buttress gorgeous mansions, and fleece-wearing tech bros gaze in horror at our heroes having fun.
Talbot’s film, his feature debut, is a personal story he devised with Fails as a teen (Talbot co-wrote the screenplay with Rob Richert). It follows Fails, who plays a character named after himself, as he tries to reclaim the magnificent home he lived in as a child, one his grandfather supposedly built in 1946. Every day, Jimmie gets up in the home he shares with Montgomery (an aspiring playwright who lives with his grandfather) and skates to the Fillmore to do upkeep on a house that technically doesn’t belong to him—painting the shutters, replanting the garden, trimming the hedges. The home’s owners try to shoo him away, but to Jimmie, they’re just tenants, people moving through a place that’s always been his.