In the first shot of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, you're struck by a beautifully-composed profile shot of a black, pigtailed girl looking up in awe at a white man in a HAZMAT suit. The man is cleaning up unexplained toxins. The girl is called by a guardian and skips away from the man carefree, as the camera pans with her.
It leaves the viewer asking why the man's protected while the girl isn't. Scenes like this are one of many examples of how director Joe Talbot and lead actor Jimmie Fails portray serious social matters — including gentrification, racism, homelessness, mental health, and gang violence — in the most subtle, human way.
The movie revolves around a man's quest to reclaim his Victorian family home in the now-gentrified Fillmore district of San Francisco. It's partially based on Fails' life story.
"American cities are changing," said Talbot, "We all have our own complicated relationships to it, whether you're a newly arrived person who feels some guilt, or you have complicated feelings about moving to a new place."
Talbot and Fails are San Francisco natives and longtime friends. They've been chatting about Fails' personal story for most of their lives.
This was their first time making a feature film. "We were not a bankable duo," said Talbot.
Talbot and his crew gave themselves a trial run by making a short film, which they funded through Kickstarter. It got into Sundance in 2017, which is where they met Christina Oh from Plan B (the company behind Oscar-winning movies "12 Years a Slave" and "Moonlight"). Talbot and his producer Khaliah Neal eventually met with the producers at Plan B (which is owned by Brad Pitt), and the rest is history.
"This started out in my childhood bedroom, talking about this," said Talbot. "To then have a movie produced by Brad Pitt and Plan B and A24. You know, it's a bit surreal."
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is out now. In VICE News’ Storyboard series, creators explain the inspiration and process behind making films.
This segment originally aired June 14, 2019 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.