The Last Black Man in San Francisco was already a historic document well before the film’s first screening.
Shot entirely in the city—the rapidly changing city, the transient city, the city beset on all sides by forces rendering it a strange and alien place to both natives and longtime transplants—by the time the film won critics’ laurels, including best director, at the Sundance Film Festival in February and wider acclaim upon its June release, several of the locations selected by writer-actor Jimmie Fails and co-writer/director Joe Talbot to tell this story of belonging, longing, displacement, and gentrification were already gone—casualties to the very phenomenon the film critiques.
“Even before we shot anything, we’d be scouting locations and find a place we’d love. Then we’d come back, and they’d be bulldozing it,” Talbot told Curbed SF in a telephone interview in late June.
Life outpacing art, art not moving quickly enough to imitate life. Changes to approved and permitted filming locations happened so quickly—sometimes from one day to the next—that they created continuity challenges and compromised the film’s cinematography.
If geography can be said to be a character in the plot—and in this case, the city certainly is, often serving as antagonist as well as constantly changing setting—what does a director do with an indispensable character declining to cooperate?
Shoot quickly and beg for more time.
As it happened, the San Francisco real-estate market nearly scuttled one of the film’s more poignant shots. Toward the end of the film, actor Jonathan Majors, playing Monty Allen, Fails’s best friend, is seen in a long shot staring out the window of his home, which in real life is a 19th-century farmhouse on Innes Avenue in Hunters Point.
“It was the last day we shot,” Talbot recalled. “We got there, and there was construction beginning [next door].”
“We had to beg the people building next door” to hold off for just a few hours so the crew could get the shot and finish the film, he said.
The constant struggle to find emblematic San Francisco locations and then finish filming before they went away forever made the job “feel like it was bigger than the movie,” Talbot said. “It felt like we were trying to preserve the old San Francisco, at least on film.”
“Locations are a really important part of it,” he added. “For me and Jimmie, they were as important as any other element of the movie.”
Here, then, is Talbot guiding Curbed SF on a tour through some of the film’s locations.
959 South Van Ness
The film’s most prominent building—the stately, Queen Anne-style Victorian built in 1889, with a phone book’s worth of period details that was Fails’s family home in the Fillmore District—is, in fact, in the heart of the Mission.
This was a necessary improvisation that is testament to how endangered such buildings are in San Francisco, but also a testament to the sui generis nature of the home itself.
“We spent years looking for the right house in San Francisco,” Talbot said. (The filmmakers started crowdfunding as early as 2015 and principal photography was in 2018, according to permits on file with Film SF.)
“What would invariably happen is, we’d knock on the door of these Victorians with beautiful facades, and our hearts would sink when we went inside and found that it very often had been gutted, and all that wonderful detailing removed,” he said. “It was a struggle to find these beautiful interiors and exteriors that in a way felt like perhaps they could have been built by one man.”
That’s the thing: Everything you see in the film—the hardwood floors and the intricate period molding, yes, but also the secret room behind a bookshelf, the built-in organ, the attic big enough to host the play-within-the-film, even the sauna—is actually in that damn house, whose owner, Jim Tyler, agreed to let Talbot film there after an epic search that involved an enormous Google document and dozens of visits from Talbot, location manager Daniel Lee, producer/writer Rob Richert, and others.
“We were scouring the streets on Google maps and then walking the streets,” Talbot said. “It felt like we had covered nearly all of San Francisco. We looked in Pacific Heights, in Hunters Point, in Fillmore itself. We knocked on doors and nothing felt quite like” 959 South Van Ness. (Other candidates included, briefly, the Haas Lilienthal House, since converted to a museum.).
“We wanted to find a place that would hopefully make the audience feel those things Jimmie is feeling,” he said. “It sounds silly to say this, but we needed the house to feel like a character, to feel developed, to go through its own arc.”
In a way, the selection of 959 South Van Ness was both happenstance and a fulfillment of a prophecy. Talbot and his brother, Nat, went to public school in the Marina District. En route to school, to entertain themselves, the brothers would “drive by our favorite Victorians that we couldn’t afford ourselves—and one of those houses was 959 South Van Ness. I remembered that house as a kid, as just a huge gray castle.”
At the same time, despite 959 South Van Ness being a constant presence and the subject of Fails’s character’s obsession, “we didn’t want it to trump the rest of the locations in the film, and so that was another thing we spent much more time than we intended, scouting every other location.”
The house serves as the Allen residence, where Fails crashes in the same room as Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and under the same roof as Monty’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover).
Co-owned today by Jill Fox, a prominent member of the India Basin Neighborhood Association, 901 Innes was nearly the film’s main character.
“When we first started scouting and were shooting the concept trailer, we thought, ‘Could this be the house in the film?’” Talbot said. “There were two vacant lots next to it that framed it well, and it was rich with character you just don’t see in a lot of these Victorians now.”
For anyone buzzing past on the 19-Polk bus, the home’s long and thin lines stand in contrast to the blockhouse-style public housing and the Mediterranean-style abodes nearby.
“It was not quite the right feeling for Jimmie’s house, but we really wanted to use it,” he said.
The homeowners were willing to cooperate with the film crew, but there was another wrinkle: It didn’t quite work for interior shots. All those were filmed over on Third Street at Newcomb Avenue, at a location arranged by Theo Ellington, a former candidate for District 10 supervisor whom Talbot and Fails knew growing up in the city.
Shipwright’s cottage/docks, 881 Innes Avenue
Other than the house at 959 South Van Ness, nowhere else in the city gets more screen time in The Last Black Man in San Francisco than this corner of Hunters Point. Across the street from the Innes Avenue farmhouse are abandoned docks and a dilapidated cottage.
That area, once a working marina with boats, is (for now) public land, owned by the Recreation and Park Department. It’s also the future home of a massive planned development called Build SF.
“We spent months trying to get access to that dock,” Talbot recalled. “We had to pull every single string we basically had.”
Isolated and nearly abandoned, the dock allows Monty solitude and escape, but the dock and the bay water are also the backdrop for the film’s opening moments. For example, the scene in which an agitated preacher stands in front of workers in hazardous materials suits—one of several direct references in the film to the radioactive contamination at the former U.S. Navy shipyard just up the road.
(As for the preacher: He bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Muhammad, the Nation of Islam minister who spent years agitating against property developer Lennar Corporation’s alleged violations of air-quality controls.)
“I was like, I was hoping they wouldn’t read the script, because from the opening of the movie, we’re like, ‘It’s toxic!’” Talbot said. “I was sort of surprised—thankfully, we got access to it.”
Present in the film, but not pictured, is the shipyard itself, still U.S. Navy property except for the several hundred finished condominiums—some of whose owners have filed suit against the military, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the property developer following a widening fraud scandal.
When a character does refer to the shipyard—“where they built the A-bomb,” as one of the characters in the Greek chorus says—there’s a brief shot of another shipyard: the disused Port of San Francisco container terminal at Pier 96.
Just getting the dock behind the cottage “was really difficult, and that was Rec and Park. There was no fucking way they’d let us in at the shipyard,” said Talbot, who did cop to committing a common San Francisco native crime: trespassing on the abandoned shipyard.
“There are such weird and strange feelings out there,” he said. “I wanted to incorporate that into the movie, but we learned very early on that was not going to be possible.”
Candy house, Alice Griffith Homes, Double Rock Street
Maybe the most “you must have been a San Francisco native in order to get this and then only a very special flavor of San Francisco native” moment in the film is Monty and Jimmie’s visit to the candy house, filmed in the since-demolished Alice Griffith public housing projects, also known as Double Rock, after the name of the dead-end street on which they were located.
It’s a trope to refer to any public housing development as “notorious”; Double Rock was never notorious like Geneva Towers—the Eichler-designed high-rises that were so dangerous police refused to respond to calls without heavy backup—but it was isolated and it was underfunded and it was thus a pocket of multi-generational poverty, and so you likely would not go there unless you had business there. If you did know people, perhaps you’d swing through the candy house.
A common hustle for public-housing residents to make extra cash (or the rent) is to run underground businesses: cutting hair, fixing cars, or selling soda, candy, baked goods, or other treats out of their homes. (In other neighborhoods, some would call such folks “entrepreneurs.”)
Most public housing developments in the city are in food deserts, but even that by-now-clinical term doesn’t adequately describe how impossible it was to find even basic food items without a long walk or hopping into a car at the now-demolished Alice Griffith homes, a short walk away from also-demolished Candlestick Park.
“We wanted to shoot the candy house scene specifically in Double Rock,” said Talbot, who added that the crew got in “just before they tore down Double Rock.”
“That was important and it’s funny how much these locations behaved” in real life as if they were characters in the movie.
Another example is the Hotel Metropolis at 25 Mason Street, where Jimmie’s father, played by Rob Morgan, can be seen peering out what is supposed to be the window of his Tenderloin SRO. That property is now a construction zone, and will be a 155-unit condominium project.
The fact that an SRO building and a public-housing project, two types of housing known to the city’s working class population of color, whose presence continues to dwindle, were captured in the film but are no longer extant in real life, is too obvious a development to require much clarification.
Bank scene, Beach Chalet, Great Highway
“The working class of yesterday feels immortalized on that wall,” a Works Project Administration-era mural similar in feel, if not content, to other contemporary realist murals at Coit Tower, Washington High School, and elsewhere in the city, Talbot said. This is a rare thing in banks: Talbot’s own local Wells Fargo in the Haight has portraits of Jimmy Hendrix and Jerry Garcia.
Thus, finding an “office-like” interior with the imposing majesty of a financial institution plus the ironic juxtaposition of the working-class people banks supposedly serve but more often exploit—depending on your analysis—required some finessing.
Real-estate agent scenes, Red Building, 2567 Mission
The green-neon marquee of the New Mission Theater (now an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema) gives the scenes in which Jimmie and Monty attempt to negotiate with a real-estate professional a sinister bent. But the inclusion of the “New Mission,” like the new San Francisco, was also a call-back.
“I wanted that sign in particular,” Talbot says. “I remember sneaking onto the roof of that building back in the day.”
Green lights are a stock character in American art: there’s the green light across the water Jay Gatsby pines after in the Great Gatsby; there’s the sheen of money tainting modern-day San Francisco like it does in these interior scenes, shot in the wee hours of the morning.
“Adam [Newport-Berra], our DP, and Tej [Virdi], our gaffer did a great job over-emphasizing that green,” Talbot added.
Also of note, Finn Wittrock’s realtor character is named Newsom, a la the California governor and former mayor of SF. And a portrait of the late Mayor Ed Lee hangs in his office. “Complete coincidences,” Talbot deadpans.
Castro bus stop, in front of the old Diesel on Market Street
“You have to ask Film SF why, but this was the only bus stop you can have a naked person at,” Talbot said. Why? “It’s not near a school, it’s not near a playground,” he guessed. That, and the Castro does have a recent history of naked people.
Other locations include the seafood section at Sunset Supermarket at 2425 Irving—where Monty works in the film and where the owners gave the crew just an hour to shoot—and the Chateau Tivoli, a working bed-and-breakfast at 1057 Steiner, where Jimmie works as a in-home healthcare aide.
Last Black Man in San Francisco also has a nod to Bullitt in a way.
“We also have, you know, falling along the proud li[n]e of geographically inaccurate San Francisco movies,” Talbot said. “In ours, we go from Portola, we have the old greenhouses, and then they crest Bernal, and then they’re walking through the Mission—they’re on Shotwell, I think—and then walking past a row of Victorians, and then they’re skating through the Tenderloin.”
And, of course, the film’s final moments at the Golden Gate Bridge, where Fails’s character rows against the powerful tide out through the Golden Gate, away from the home he no longer recognizes.
“That was the last shot of the movie,” he said. “I got seasick and Jimmie’s out there in a tiny boat. We were out there at sunrise, and it’s been such a crazy shoot—we were just barely getting by every day. And it was just a collective herculean effort on everyone’s part to pull it off.”
But Jimmie didn’t have time to learn how to row before shooting the scene.
“Jimmie’s hella athletic and smart, he figured out how to row in literally the last couple of minutes that we had that golden light,” Talbot said. “Any frustration on his face, pained over the loss of San Francisco, is really him learning how to row in the middle of the ocean. It was the way it had to end after a crazy shoot.”