Aimless, poor, and depressed, Albert is fed up with his lot in life and decides to rob a bank in Bay Area-based filmmaker Joe Talbot’s American Paradise, debuting online today as a Vimeo Staff Pick Premiere. It’s a crazy caper, made more outlandish by the fact that it’s based on a true story.
“Al is a ticking time-bomb, somewhere between Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle, whose misguided path speaks to something larger about our culture as a whole,” Talbot tells Creators. He wrote and shot the film before Donald Trump was elected, but American Paradise taps into the wave of racial and class dissatisfaction that the president rode into office. When Albert’s plans go awry, they culminate in a parable that earned Jury Award nominations at the Sundance Film Festival and South by Southwest, won the award at the Nashville Film Festival and charmed an audience at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
Watch the film above if you wish to avoid spoilers below.
In 2010, an Ohio white man named Conrad Zyrtiak was charged with robbing six banks while wearing a Hollywood-quality mask that made him look like a black man. When Albert walks into the bank, he’s wearing a mask, the same make and model that Zyrtiak wore.
American Paradise is framed as a semi-factual parable told by an older African American man to a younger fishing companion, played by Talbot’s close friend and roommate, Jimmie Fail. Fail is the subject of a narrative documentary hybrid called The Last Black Man in San Francisco, for which Talbot is currently fundraising.
Talbot, raised in San Francisco’s diverse Hunters Point neighborhood, dances around the politics of race and systemic brutality to deliver a story that he says delivered as many laughs at the Apollo as at SXSW. We asked him a few questions about how he wrote and directed a lighthearted film about race and law enforcement in 2017.
Creators: Where were you when you first came across the true story that inspired American Paradise?
Joe Talbot: I stumbled upon this video, which is sort of a fascinating short film in its own right, and subsequent disturbing follow-ups. I was shocked I hadn’t heard about it. Watching the YouTube videos of the people in the masks after made me feel a little queasy.
I called my producer, Khaliah Neal, who I’d been working with on our feature film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and told her about the story. I work closely with the same core team and we tend to work pretty collaboratively, almost more like a writers room, so a big part of the process early on is just talking out the ideas and feeling out how others respond to it. We all had different reactions, but felt there was something there worth exploring.
Why did you want to tell this story?
I wanted to make something that wasn’t solely an indictment of this desperate cast-off, but showed the way others were implicit as well. It’s easy to point your nose up at the freaks on the fringe who do the unthinkable. It’s harder to look inward at our own similarities with them. And in this case, they run deep.
With the exception of the black man in the bank, everyone thinks Albert is black. This was the case in the real life incident as well. The teenagers at the stoplight, the bank teller, the cop all perceive him as a black man. What does that say about our understanding of black people and black culture? That an obvious charlatan fooled so many people? It’s no longer just his own misconceived sense of blackness, but all of ours.
And while our movie obviously dramatizes the events that happened, we did in fact use the same model mask that the real bank robber used. So when he busts through the bank doors in our film, that is exactly what people saw in real life.
What is the most memorable reaction someone has had to the film?
We showed the film at The Apollo as a sneak preview before Sundance. It was our first time showing it to anyone outside of our team and by that point, I’d watched it so many times in the edit, I’d lost my ability to assess how someone might take it in for the very first time. I was surprised to hear how much people laughed. I was a little wowed by the way group settings and collective energy can impact a viewing.
In taking it on the festival circuit, I realized this can be especially true with shorts because your slot in a program can greatly affect the way the film is taken in, far beyond the metrics of just good and bad. At Sundance—partially due to the audience they get—people seemed to receive it very seriously and it got the kind of dark chuckles the Coens might solicit (though Dolores Huerta was seated behind us, cracking up).
At SXSW, it got big laughs because I think audiences there expect more humor, and the programmer Claudette Godfrey had placed it as a “pick-me-up laugher” at the end of a very heavy program. At our hometown screening at SFIFF, it played after a moving portrait of the mother of Mario Woods, who was unjustly killed by the SFPD. I think most people were crying at the end of that film, so it takes a moment to adjust as you reopen yourself for the next film, especially one like ours that dances on a line between humor and drama.
Which character in the film do you most identify with?
I don’t know that I identify with any one character, but I sympathize with some of them at various points. I like outsiders, and I often feel like one, so the moment where Al is looking at the postcard, wondering if there’s some place out there he’d be celebrated, makes me feel for him. When he enters the bank, my sympathies shift to the man on the floor he yells at. I sympathize with that woman who has to work at that donut shop and deal with sketchy dudes like Al doing god knows what in her bathroom.
You have summarized the film as a reflection of Trump’s America. How has living with Trumpism impacted you as an artist?
I think that while Trump’s election can feel like it’s breathed new life into a fringe group, the darker truth is that he’s unhooded a massive beast that had been actively lurking all along. It was here before Trump was elected when we wrote and shot the film, and now it’s just out proudly strutting around in broad daylight for all to see. But I think that since that unhooding, Al’s story stands out less, which is disturbing to think about given how shocking his story felt when I first became aware of it.
How do you respond to people who are critical of a white director telling stories about race in America?
So far, no one has said that to me yet, but I’m sure they’re out there and of course, I’d want hear them out and open a dialogue. That is essentially what this film is all about, and what I’d hoped it would achieve. However, it’s hard to fully answer that question without first knowing who that person is, what informs their criticism and what motivates them to ask about it in the first place.
As a general response, I’d say there’s a great number of white directors with little interest in POC characters. I think that’s probably a result of a system that’s favored putting white males in the director’s chair, many of whom probably didn’t have many close POC friends growing up. And so out of fear of seeming racist or getting things wrong, they run from the risky thing they don’t know. I’m not here to shut them down, but my background is different. I grew up in a diverse neighborhood. My friend group has always been diverse. So for me, it makes sense to deal with issues of race and to have diverse casts.
How are the ideas of American Paradise reflected in your upcoming film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco?
Issues regarding race and class are also a part of—Last Black Man—and although there will be some aesthetic and tonal similarities and much of the creative team will be the same—Last Black Man will be told as more of a valentine than a crazy caper. It’s based on American Paradise co-star Jimmie Fail’s life story he first told me when we were kids and is our homage to the San Francisco we grew up in that’s fading fast.
See more of Joe Talbot’s work here.