Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Now fundraising on Kickstarter, a film by two S.F. natives will grapple with race, class, displacement, and the importance of friendship.
Among the more worrying trends out of San Francisco in recent years—and the greatest tarnish to the city’s reputation for diversity—is the displacement of longtime residents of color. It’s not only Latinos being pushed out of the Mission District: Census numbers reveal a staggering 35.7 percent decrease in San Francisco's black population between 1990 and 2010.
Third-generation San Franciscan Jimmie Fails has witnessed that flight first-hand. As a black kid growing up in the Fillmore District, he watched his beloved family home go into foreclosure, and his aunts, uncles, and cousins disperse from the Bay Area. Soon after, he moved to the Army St. Housing Projects near the Mission, where he met fledgling film director and fifth-generation S.F. native Joe Talbot.
“Everyone always kicked it at Precita Park,” he says. “We started hanging out, shooting videos.”
It’s an understatement: One of those shorts won an honorable mention at the 2013 San Francisco Independent Film Festival.
Now 20 and 24 respectively, Fails and Talbot are gearing up to create their first feature-length film, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” inspired by some of Jimmie’s real-life stories. They’re well on their way to raising $50,000 to fund the project on Kickstarter. The frankly heartbreaking teaser-trailer is above.
Written and directed by Talbot, the film follows Fails—also a co-writer—and his best friend, played by Prentice Sanders. Neither quite at ease in their far-flung neighborhood, Hunters Point, or in the newly tech-ified San Francisco core, Jimmie and Prentice are outcasts at heart, searching for home in their native city as it changes before their eyes.
Though the film is heavily fictionalized, a central arc is Jimmie’s character’s attempt to buy back the house he lost as a child.
“There is this major question of whether he can stay in the city,” says Talbot. “Do you fight to protect the city you love, or do you accept these big changes?”
Issues of race, class, and displacement loom over the film, but both Jimmie and Joe say it’s really about friendship. “What ties you to the city are your friends who are from here,” says Fails. “You gravitate towards each other. When I look at someone, I can tell if they were born and raised here. There aren’t many of us left.”
Their own connection feels increasingly like an exception, as the city’s black community shrinks and shrinks. “One thing we always say is that friendships like Jimmie and mine don’t exist in the future of San Francisco,” Talbot says. “When we were kids, Precita Park used to be the meeting point for everyone from the area: White kids from Bernal Heights, black kids from the projects, Latino kids from the Mission. Now that park is very different. There isn’t that crossover.”
Now both living at Talbot’s family home in the Mission, Jimmie and Joe say they’re working toward ways to stay in the city, and that there’s plenty to keep them both there for now, even as they worry about what’s to come.
“I hope we can bring the diversity back,” says Fails, “and that there can be more of a black community. I also hope the weirdness stays. The whole reason white people came was it was a city where people who felt like outcasts could come and feel accepted.”