OK San Francisco, I’ve waited — impatiently, expectantly — two months since “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” debuted on the red carpet at the Castro Theater to write this column.
For those who haven’t seen it (shame on you!), the film details the fantastical quest of Jimmie Fails, a character named for the actor, as he works to regain his childhood San Francisco home.
It’s a not-so-subtle but still entirely perfect analog for S.F. natives’ quest to hold on to The City we know and love amid a housing affordability crisis, one that will resonate with anyone who loves a city. Any city.
So just for you, my local friends and family, I sat Joey Talbot, Rob Richert and other production crew members down in their Chinatown offices (just above China Live) to hear them talk about the little local secrets they packed into every frame.
They shared some tidbits that are out there already, yes, but also some that are entirely new …
Characters in “Last Black Man” are sometimes pulled from real life, as in the case of the realtor with a smarmy attitude and slicked-back dark hair.
While the realtor’s first name isn’t Gavin, his last name is definitely Newsom, and he introduces himself as having attended St. Ignatius College Preparatory High School, just like our former mayor and current governor’s father did.
(Also, SF Natives talking about their high schools — that’s a true-to-life practice, for sure.)
“The realtor just happens to be named Newsom, I’m not sure how that got in there,” Talbot told me, with just a whiff of sarcasm.
Hung on a wall behind Newsom, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment as he talks patronizingly to the film’s main characters, you can spot a framed photo of the late Mayor Ed Lee, in what seems to be a subtle jab at the tech boom that drives the displacement of the film’s characters.
Elsewhere, two obnoxious background characters are identified as “YIMBYs” in the credits. I snorted aloud when Talbot told me that one. I hadn’t caught it.
Montgomery Allen, the playwright who is Jimmie’s best friend in the film, is also inspired by someone real, Talbot told me: Prentice Sanders, a friend Talbot made while attending a film class at City College of San Francisco.
“Jonathan took the character in his wonderful, own direction,” Talbot said. But some of the language he uses like, “schvitz,” in reference to a sauna, came from Prentice.
“He always uses Yiddish,” Talbot said.
It goes deeper, too — Prentice is the grandson and namesake of Prentice Earl Sanders, who became San Francisco’s first black police chief in 2002 under Mayor Willie Brown.
Thrasher Magazine, the skating mag that to this day operates out of Hunters Point, also sees its logo featured repeatedly in the film, likely because its owner Tony Vitello helped the “Last Black Man” crew with its skateboarding scenes.
When Talbot wanted Jimmie and Mont to ride a single skateboard together, which they do in the film’s opening scene, Talbot called up Vitello, who connected the crew with someone in the Sunset District who built them a custom board. It’s slightly longer than a regular skateboard and retooled to allow two people to balance more easily.
“The opening of the film was built around them skating together, it’s how you show their friendship,” Talbot said. Thrasher made that scene happen.
Fails and Majors, who play the two main characters, practiced skating together in an alley right off of Van Ness and Market Streets, where the film crew were provided free offices by The City.
There are so many cameos and local legends in “Last Black Man” roles that I almost need to rapid-fire them. OK everyone, deep breath …
Fillmore rapper San Quinn and rapper Willie Hen both have roles in the film. Jimmie’s aunt Wanda is married to a character played by famous skater Daewon Song, who, while not local, has skated San Francisco.
Cooper Chow, the Chinatown-raised actor known for his TV series Gold Mountain, makes an appearance, as does Jello Biafra, punk legend and Dead Kennedys frontman, who plays a tour guide on a Segway Scooter.
While filming, Biafra apparently repeated his long-running barbs against the Alioto political dynasty, which came to a head when Biafra ran for mayor in 1979. Richert, one of the film’s writers, said Biafra ad-libbed, “‘El douche-ey, Mayor Joe Alioto!’ That was like a direct line from him.”
Talbot — who I must disclose, was my student when he was as teenager at School of the Arts High School, when I led workshops before I was a journalist — also worked his former high school film teacher (and my former boss) Scott Eberhardt, and his wife, local artist Rachel Znerold, into the film.
Mont pops out of a hidden room in Jimmie’s house and spooks them both toward the end of the movie.
Some other quickies: The crew made sure to feature a woman who walks the Tenderloin with a cat on her shoulder into shots outside Jimmie’s father’s SRO hotel. Two local singers who also have experienced homelessness, Tim Blevin and Ron Kemp, can be heard in the film. Blevin trained at Julliard, and has at times been nicknamed “Opera.”
And a “candy lady” in the movie, played by Dakecia Chappell, who sells candy out of her home to the neighborhood, actually sold candy out of her home in real life on old Army Street, once upon a time.
Talbot and the scouting crew came across her by chance in a Whole Foods. They asked her if she acted before, but Talbot told me she answered “No, ‘but I was meant to because I have the same birthday as Charlize Theron.’”
Speaking of famous folks, comedian and actor Mike Epps also appears in the film as an old friend of Jimmie’s father.
Santa Cruz skater Andy Roy, who allegedly tried choking artist DMX on stage (“I was just trying to give him a Top Ramen hug!” he later said) had a scene in the film that ended up being cut, the writers told me. He throws a pigeon at a billboard of the realtor, Newsom, which bloodily explodes.
Sadly, that practical effect didn’t quite work. It ended up looking “too strange,” Talbot said, but not because they were trying to spare Newsom.
Last but far, far from least, Mike Marshall (Mike Meezy), the singing voice behind “I Got 5 On It” makes an appearance, lending his talented pipes to sing Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco.”
While Marshall has been spotted frequently by movie-goers, perhaps mentioned less-often is that Talbot knew Marshall as far back as high school, back when the director mixed beats for local rappers in his Bernal Heights home.
“He came and sang in my childhood bedroom, and was brought over by Equipto,” Talbot told me. “Technically, Mike Marshall is my oldest collaborator on the film. Equipto was also a really big help for us and is a big supporter.”
Equipto’s family lives just up the street from Talbot’s family, a true-blue SF connection.
Real-world SF locations
While San Franciscans can pretty easily identify many Frisco landmarks and neighborhoods seen around the film, not all of them are so obvious.
The “bank” Jimmie visits when trying to buy his childhood home is actually the Beach Chalet restaurant at Ocean Beach, Talbot said.
“We said in the script we really needed these old, beautiful WPA murals. Coit Tower wouldn’t let us [shoot], SROs wouldn’t let us,” he said. He was grateful to the Beach Chalet, but while they were gracious, the feeling wasn’t universal.
“There was a guy who ran the gift store who really didn’t like us being there, who off-camera was staring needles at us,” Talbot said.
Many movie-goers spotted actress Thora Birch of “Ghost World” fame as the woman who Jimmie famously tells, “You don’t get to hate San Francisco. You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” What may be less known is what’s behind them when he says the line: Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts High School, Talbot’s alma-mater.
It’s also where Talbot’s teacher first showed him “Ghost World.”
“I always felt her character and Jimmy are similar in a lot of ways, and she got that immediately,” Talbot said. “She and I would joke like, at the end of ‘Ghost World’ when she gets on the bus, it’s like she never got off the bus and wound up in San Francisco working a tech job she hates.”
The director of “Ghost World,” Terry Zwigoff, lives just up the street from Talbot, he said.
And a lot featuring an extinguished fire that Jimmie drives by was right next to the Painted Ladies, by Alamo Square Park. The crew almost used the “No Place Like Home” lot in The Mission.
Speaking of La Mission, Mission Local reporter Julian Mark lives in the home that Jimmie Fails’ character aspires to live in, in the movie, and Mark has a great write-up on its history on Mission Local’s website. But perhaps less discussed is the home Jimmie lives in with actor Danny Glover’s character, who is Mont’s grandfather.
The interior of the home in the film is actually former District 10 supervisor candidate Theo Ellington’s childhood home. Ellington and Talbot were pals as teenagers.
And the exterior of Mont’s Bayview home was shot on Innes Avenue. Just a week or so after Talbot and crew shot their needed scenes there, big news about the area hit San Francisco — radiation testing at the site was found to have been falsified by Navy contractors.
“It was a week or two after we were filming that all the stories came out about how it’s toxic,” Talbot said.
If you’re frustrated by that (and I certainly am), just remember:
You don’t get to hate San Francisco unless you love it.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at Facebook.com/FitztheReporter.
This column has been updated to correct that Gavin Newsom did not attend St. Ignatius College Preparatory High School, but his father did.