Since premiering at Sundance in January, director Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man In San Francisco” has earned critical acclaim for its elegiac take on gentrification in the Bay Area as told through the eyes of a young black man based on Fails himself. But while the story begins with a young black man named Jimmie Fails (played by co-screenwriter Jimmie Fails), it ends with Jimmie’s friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) who pushes the film’s themes into an exploration of modern black masculinity and friendship.
To prepare for the breakthrough role, Majors spent several months with Fails, who based the story on his own experiences growing up in San Francisco’s Fillmore district. built a camaraderie that only became stronger once the cameras started rolling. That made the film’s final scene with the two onscreen friends all the more poignant for Majors to shoot.
“The version you see in the movie is actually from a reshoot, because the original shoot was so dark,” Majors said. “But the second time we shot it, it felt so much more emotional to me because it was after we had shot the rest of the film and I knew and experienced what had happened to that point.”
“Standing alone on the dock, it felt like I was standing at the end of the world,” he said, “and yet also at the beginning of something new.”
When the film’s story was first conceived by Talbot and Fails, Montgomery was based on an actual person in Fails’ life: a classmate named Prentice whom Majors, a Yale Drama School grad, at first struggled to nail down. “In drama school we would have interview projects where we would spend a long time with someone to take on their mannerisms and speech patterns,” Majors said, and he asked if that would be possible here. “But to their credit, Joey and Jimmie said, ‘You know what? Do it your way. You should make this your own character.’ And it meant everything to me.”
Majors, who first broke onto the festival circuit with his performance as drug kingpin Johnny Curry in last year’s “White Boy Rick,” drew on his formal education in scenes about Montgomery’s theatrical passions, from rehearsing his one-man show on a small dock overlooking a polluted waterway to a moment where he defuses escalating trash talk between a group of men outside his house by pretending he is directing them in a scene.
“Joey just let me improv, so I started talking in the scene about Brecht, because I was reading a book about him at the time,” he said. “And the lines you hear in the film are things that my professors would tell me in undergrad. That melding of the language, the physical and the spirit of myself into the context that Joey had put us in was such an incredible thing, including the play itself.”
The contrast between Montgomery’s artistic expression and the trash talk of those around him becomes key to “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” as it explores how the black men of the city deal with the growing economic disparity and displacement that has become the defining issue of the Bay Area. Majors says that exploring that topic was inevitable.
“Those themes are just a natural result of who we are. I am black and male. Jimmie Fails is black and male. We’re both under 30, and we’re going to be in close contact with each other all the time,” Majors told TheWrap. “In the black culture, masculinity is such a hot topic. Who is the biggest man, whether it’s in size or bank account or record deals. But it’s especially bigger in marginalized groups like these characters are in. So in this film we are showing the full spectrum of masculinity in a specific group, and we are exploring what it means to be a young black man in America, and in an area that is pushing you and your kind out.”
Majors followed “Last Black Man” with a key role in the next Spike Lee joint, “Da 5 Bloods,” which follows four Vietnam War vets who return to Southeast Asia to find buried treasure and the remains of their squad leader.
“To leave America, to be immersed in the culture of the film and to work with a legend like Spike was a whirlwind,” Majors said. “Spike’s a firecracker, the most dynamic director I’ve ever worked with. You never know what’s coming, and that makes filming feel gladiatorial. It was so unpredictable, kinda like San Francisco.”