“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is having quite a moment. Since the indie film’s debut two weeks ago, it’s received glowing reviews from dozens of publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and WIRED. The heartfelt take of one San Francisco man’s resistance against gentrification seems to have touched a nerve, thereby drawing more attention to a housing crisis that hurts local people of color most of all.
The movie’s story came from the minds of two San Francisco natives, Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot, but it was Berkeley-born screenwriter Rob Richert who helped bring their vision to the screen. A former film lecturer at Diablo Valley College and San Quentin State Prison, Richert started making animated movies while a student at Berkeley High. He worked on several notable shorts before helping Talbot write the script for Last Black Man in San Francisco, which is both Richert and Talbot’s first feature.
Richert, who now lives in Los Angeles, spoke to Berkeleyside earlier this week about working on the critically acclaimed film. The movie’s focus on San Francisco’s changing landscape led to a discussion of what’s currently happening in Richert’s hometown and its disappearing idiosyncrasies. These changes haven’t escaped Richert and he had a lot to say.
Q: How did you start your film career?
A: When I went to Berkeley High, I did a lot of animations with a friend of mine. We were doing all these really vulgar animations in the style of Spike and Mike’s Twisted Animation Festival and I became super addicted to making people laugh. Then I went to Cal for college and took June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. That was what got me out of poo poo humor and into wanting to do stuff that has some meaning and purpose in the world.
Q: When did you start working with Joe Talbot?
A: I met Joe at SF Film, the residency there. Joe had just been to the San Francisco, or the Sundance screenwriting residency. We became fast friends. I loved his project, but I was just kind of working on my own thing. When he decided to do the short (a precursor to Last Black Man), then I got into that. It ended up being chock a block just working on that short for a few months. After it played at Sundance, he handed me the script to Last Black Man. I started giving notes, and then giving notes started to turn into helping rewrite. Then we spent a good, I’d say three months, moving around post-it notes on the wall and making new ones and shifting the whole thing around. We put a lot of work into this new idea of what the script could be.
Q: ‘Last Black Man In San Francisco’ is about black men, but you and Talbot — two white men — wrote it. How did you two make sure you got the perspective correct?
A: That’s something we talked about a lot. I grew up in Berkeley. I have always been raised in that understanding of, “There are certain things that you are just not going to understand.” No matter how many times you could say, “My best friend is black,” you’re not going to know certain things. It’s just not a part of your experience. So it’s important to have Jimmie and Khaliah, and a couple of other great black collaborators along the way who gave lot of notes.
“And that just refers to my involvement… the story, of course, was first developed by Jimmie and Joe and many of the plot points and characters, those raw elements, came out of Jimmie’s life. Jimmie is a great storyteller in his own right. Bobby, Jimmie’s mother, the very core story of the house itself just to name a few. And beyond Jimmie, there are characters based on people Joe grew up with, some of whom appear in the film as well.”
Q: The major theme of this film is belonging. It’s there in the protagonist’s desire to stay in a house where he doesn’t belong, and in Jimmie and Mont’s misfit status in the local black community. Is it possible to be born and raised here, and still not feel like you belong here?
A: Yeah, I think that’s what Jimmie is going through. He feels like he doesn’t belong anymore, and that’s what he’s fighting against the whole movie, right? But as filmmakers, in presenting that complexity, I don’t know if we want to weigh in on, “Oh, you definitely can’t belong.” But, everything is telling [Jimmie] he doesn’t, right? He just knows in himself that he can’t stay there.
Q: It’s a theme for other Bay Area-based movies about gentrification, like “Blindspotting.” While these movies are critically acclaimed, would people care about them if there wasn’t this issue in the Bay Area?
A: I’d like to think they would. I don’t know. You hope that people would notice, but I also think that unfortunately, we are the example that people mention when they talk about gentrification.
San Francisco is a small enough city, and a city with such a rich culture, that you feel the change quickly. Losing the rich culture side of it makes it more painful and the smallness of the city is what makes it so dramatic. The things that have happened to the Fillmore, it’s such a brutal punch to that neighborhood. A neighborhood can never be the same after that. Of course there’s people still there, but it’s so different. And Oakland, too.
Berkeley too, which is the lesser mentioned city, right? It’s like a different kind of gentrification there, in a way. There is less of a racial component to it, even though there is a racial component, but there is a major cultural component, too. I remember what Telegraph looked like when I was growing up, and it’s pretty different now. It’s a lot more “bougie” — I don’t know how else to say that.
Q: I’ve only live here since 2003, and even I’ve noticed it. You could see it from the disappearance of old crappy Volvos and the proliferation of Mercedes SUVs.
A: Yeah. There’s just neighborhoods that used to be way more tight knit and working class. A lot has changed. I remember growing up, there was that whole block that was just cooperatives. You could get a fucking hammer or a television or you could get your groceries. All of those are gone except for the Cheese Board, right? Long live the Cheese Board. But it’s sad. It’s sad that some of those changes have happened. Hopefully, people that move into these areas respect what was there, and maybe they bring something to it, too. You can’t prevent change, but hopefully, you can slow it down a little.
Q: There’s a lot less nude protests, too.
A: That’s true. Now that you say that, I will tell you a story — one of my quintessential stories of gentrification in Berkeley, or at least how the culture around Telegraph changed. I remember growing up, as a kid, I remember walking down the street with my parents, and we walked past some homeless guys that were asking for spare change. One guy was naked and was pretending to strum his junk like it was a guitar, and with deep earnestness and sincerity, he was singing. Just singing.
I thought that was the coolest shit I had ever seen. As a five-year-old, I was impressed. I would terrorize my family running around the house naked singing what I called the “naked dance” that I had learned from this guy.
I don’t really see things like that anymore. Then again, maybe I’m a little out there on what I’d like to see in the world. People just having the ability to be free and live their ideals. To be able to push the boundaries a little bit.
“Obviously, this is a silly aside to small changes around Berkeley. You want to see what’s happened here you go down to Prince Street and see how white it’s become. You’ll see the problem the film speaks to.”
Q: And learning to accept when you boundaries are being pushed.
A: Exactly. There’s a gentleness that is key. I think that’s what’s underneath all of it, and that’s what’s underneath this film. This isn’t something I ever had a conversation with Joe about because it felt so right when he did it, but when he had the repetition of the line “gentle people” in the movie. It feels like that’s what we need more than anything is gentleness. And what’s come in, what’s hoping to change the area, it does not stand for gentleness. It does not stand for looking out for those around you. It’s a machine.
Q: With this film, there’s this acceptance of situation, and a realization that the characters just need to get out and move on. Is that what’s going to happen in real life?
A: I don’t see it being curved fast enough. I understand the anger as a reaction. After the Oakland premiere, Tichina Arnold asked, “How do you feel?” and just put it to the audience immediately. She just wanted to know how people were feeling. A lot of people felt love, and a lot of people felt anger. It was a really clear line. I feel like I don’t see enough things stopping gentrification to be able to have a hopeful reaction.
Imagine our movie with a happy ending. People would be booing it because it’s not real. It’s not what’s happening. It’s not what people are feeling.
The article was updated after publication to clarify some of Richert’s remarks.