This semi-biographical film is the Horatio Alger–like tale of one member of San Francisco's dwindling black population.
When I was growing up in San Francisco in the 90s and early 2000s, the streets east of Mission Street were intimidating to walk down. There was a gang presence, a notorious high-rise housing project on Army Street, and scores of homeless people sleeping by the dirt-pocked field at Garfield Park.
Today, while the neighboring Valencia Street has become a haven for boutique shops and five-dollar lattes, the area east of Mission has kept its old flavor. Still, as I waited for Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, creators of the film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, at Philz Coffee on 25th and Folsom, I could see that it too is changing. Almost everyone at the café was working on a laptop and almost everyone was white. Fails, over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and black, stood out in the crowd. Talbot, slighter, white, and dressed in checkered pants and a tan overcoat, fit right in.
But as I talked to Talbot and Fails, who finish each other's sentences and love to tell stories about their incongruent, yet linked childhoods, they both felt equally alienated from the new San Francisco. Their film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which they are hoping to fund through a Kickstarter that launched Sunday, is the loosely biographical story of Fails's life in the city. But despite the name, they stressed the fact that the story is not simply a tale about being black in a predominately rich, predominately white city. Instead, they said, it's an outsider tale—closer to Ghost World than Dear White People.
"A lot of people can relate to feeling like an outcast in their city," Fails said.
Last year, the concept trailer of the film, which stars Fails and is directed by Talbot, won the Best of Bernal award at the Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema Festival. Since then, the two have worked on expanding the script to tell a story that is classically American and still relevant today. In the proposed film, the protagonist's grandfather builds a home in the Fillmore district, which his family loses when the Fails's character is five years old. Fifteen years later, Fails dreams of finding a way to buy the house back. It's Horatio Alger meets the housing crisis—riches to rags to the seemingly unattainable dream of riches again.
It was a fistfight that first brought Talbot and Fails together when they were kids. Talbot's family had moved to Bernal Heights when he was five—"It was a very different neighborhood, Latino families, funky old liberal artists, lesbian bars"—and as a white teenager, he became a target in the neighborhood. At 12 or 13, Talbot squared off with another teenager at Precita Park.
"People were mad because he was white and he had beat a black kid," Fails said. "I was the only one who was like, 'Nah, bro, he lost.'"
"Jimmie was the one who came to my defense," Talbot said.
After that, the two started hanging out, skateboarding and exploring the neighborhood. Fails was living in the projects on Army Street at the time, while Talbot was the lone white kid who was never without his camera.
"Jimmie and I bonded because we both felt like outsiders, outcasts, we both didn't feel like we fit neatly into one category or another," Talbot explained. "I think that bond that we had, even having totally different experiences, totally different backgrounds, is a testament to what was great about San Francisco. And in future San Francisco, I don't think that exists."
When you eavesdrop at cafes or restaurants around San Francisco, you will undoubtedly hear a conversation about the changing city. You'll hear about the outlandish cost of rent. You'll hear about the artists forced out to Oakland. You'll hear about when the Mission was still the Mission.
Most of the ire is focused at the techies, the young, white, 20-somethings shitting golden eggs in the form of new apps that offer to do your laundry or track your girlfriend's menstrual cycle. And though the rich, brash, and young are easy to dislike, it's an oversimplification to blame them for all that's wrong with San Francisco.
"What's happening now is not a new thing in San Francisco. People have been getting pushed out of San Francisco for a long time," Talbot said. "I think it's important to show through a historical lens what happened in the 60s to the Fillmore. Especially for me, growing up in the Mission and seeing it happen now, it's important to see what happened to other neighborhoods before this."
Talbot and Fails hope their film will be that historical lens, while remaining grounded in the alienation of being young, poor, and native in the city today. The Fails family home, bordering the newly renovated Duboce Park, becomes the symbol of being cast out by the new San Francisco in the film. Buying it back would reaffirm Fails's place within the city.
In 1970, black San Franciscans made up 13.4 percent of the population. By 2013, that number had fallen to 6.1 percent.
In many ways, the history of the Fillmore District is the best way to understand being black in the city today. After World War II, a large middle-class black population arrived in San Francisco. They couldn't move into the city's white neighborhoods, so they settled in the Fillmore, a traditionally Jewish and Japanese neighborhood. During the Jazz Era, the Fillmore was considered the Harlem of the West—clubs like Bop City, the Champagne Supper Club, and Club Alabam were known around the country. Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Charlie Parker all came to San Francisco to play and hang out throughout the neighborhood. But apart from the music, the Fillmore of the 40s and 50s also played another critical role: It was a neighborhood where black San Franciscans could own business, own homes, and create a culture to be proud of.
In the late 40s, the San Francisco government declared the Fillmore District "blighted" under the California Redevelopment Act of 1945. That distinction granted the city the authority and federal funding to completely redevelop the neighborhood. Over the next 40 years, the city used eminent domain to demolish the old Fillmore—883 businesses were forced to close, 4,729 families were forced from their homes, and almost 2,500 Victorian houses were leveled. The black middle class was essentially destroyed in the process. In 1970, black San Franciscans made up 13.4 percent of the population. By 2013, that number had fallen to 6.1 percent. And even that figure is misleading. Thirty percent of the city's black population lives in the Bay View/Hunter's Point area, the city's southeast district where many white San Franciscans have never been.
Fails's grandfather bought a home in the Fillmore when it was still a middle-class black neighborhood and held onto it through the redevelopment of the area. Fails's whole extended family lived in that house when he was young, but after his grandfather passed away, his family members fell behind on the mortgage. When Fails was six, in the early 90s, the bank foreclosed on the Victorian and his family was evicted. After they were forced out, everything began to fall apart. His relatives fell harder into drugs and scattered, and there was infighting over money.
"I haven't had a family since the house," Fails said. "I can't call my cousin right now. I don't even know his number."
Fails and Talbot focused their film around the house because they both understand that the eviction was the moment Fails's life changed. Afterward, Fails moved from project house to project house throughout his childhood—in the Mission, Hunter's Point, and many other parts of the city. In each new place, he had to get in fistfights to prove that he belonged.
"When you're born with a sense of ownership and then get that ownership taken from you," he said, "it's like... shit."
A lot of the film, Talbot said, focuses on the struggle to reacquire that sense of ownership that Fails lost when his grandfather's home was taken.
The two filmmakers struggle with those same feelings of a loss of ownership in their own neighborhood. After the coffee, as we walked around the Mission District, they scoffed at the turf field at Garfield Park and the lapdog being walked at Precita Park. They told me story after story about when the neighborhood still had an edge, but I understood they were really reminiscing about when it was still truly theirs. The two now live together in Bernal Heights, close to where we were walking, but they know it'll only get harder to afford to stay. And even if they do, the neighborhood will continue to change around them.
"There's so much great shit here that's worth fighting for, and that's why people are so upset," Talbot said. "Because if it was totally fucked, people would say, 'Fuck it, we'll move to Oakland.' But there are still things here that make you fall in love with it again and again."
It's not the kind of place you see during montages in The Princess Diaries or Mrs. Doubtfire.
The connection Talbot and Fails feel for the city is obvious when you talk to them. They dream about showing the San Francisco they grew up exploring—sites they called "the MUNI graveyard," "the Whoopty-Whoop," and "the Million-Dollar View"—to the world. Even when Fails recounted stories of racial alienation in the city—a five-year-old asking his mother why Fails's face was brown; a white hipster walking through the sprinklers at night because he thought Fails was following him—it was clear he hadn't given up on San Francisco. He was giddy while telling me about all "the little shit that's never been on film before" that I'd see in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
He and Talbot especially lit up when describing the bizarrely beautiful home of the protagonist's best friend, Prentice, which Talbot describes as looking like "Ghetto Tim Burton," an old fisherman's lodging across from a decrepit dock. The filmmakers are excited to set these scenes and others on the far edge of Hunter's Point—one of the few remaining predominantly black neighborhoods in the city—because it's not the kind of place you see during montages in The Princess Diaries or Mrs. Doubtfire. The neighborhood is notoriously violent, and because of the toxic waste from the abandoned naval shipyard, the residents there suffer from extremely elevated cancer and asthma rates. And yet, both Talbot and Fails agree that it's inevitable that the neighborhood will change along with the rest of the city in the near future. There's only so much land in San Francisco and the demand to move here is unquenchable.
"That's one of the last affordable parts of San Francisco," Talbot said. "But the nicest views in San Francisco are on the hill out in Hunter's Point. It's only a matter of time."
The Kickstarter for The Last Black Man in San Francisco runs through June 3.
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