San Francisco is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country -- but it has one of the lowest populations of African-Americans. In 1990, 11% of city residents were African-American. In 2001, it was 7.8%. Now, it’s just 6%. San Francisco native Jimmie Fails says it makes him feel like the last black man in the whole city.
“It just definitely makes me feel like there’s less people to relate to,” he says. “There’s no black middle class. You know what I’m saying?"
"It gives people, who are outsiders, one image of black folks. The less of us there are, the more they can stereotype us.”
Fails wants to capture his experience through a new film called, yes, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” It’s a fictional version of Fails’ life in which he meets wacky city characters, brushes off racist encounters, and tries to make his corner of San Francisco home.
The real-life Jimmie Fails doesn’t fit neatly into one box. His acting inspiration is Marlon Brando, and like Brando, he’s the star of his own show.
In the film’s trailer, Fails skateboards around San Francisco’s hilly streets as he tells us his family’s story and pursues his own quest to buy back the house his grandfather built in the Western Addition in the 1940s. We see his silhouette against the backdrop of the Bayview-Hunters Point piers, where many Black men like his grandfather came to work. The story of loss he tells would be familiar to many Black families in San Francisco. But in the film, Fails’ real-life narrative veers into fiction as he plots to buy back the home with his quirky, esoteric Black best friend, Prentiss.
The scheming is fiction, but the best friend part is true. Except in Fails’ real life, the partner in crime is a short, scrappy, hite filmmaker -- his childhood best friend, Joe Talbot.
I meet them where they both grew up, near Precita Park. They first met not far from where we’re sitting: Talbot had gotten in a fight with a larger kid from the Army Street Projects where Fails lived, and won. The neighborhood kids were upset, but Fails stuck up for Talbot. Then they started to hang out.
“I just kept seeing him around.," Fails says. "He always had the camera out so I was always trying to be around that. You know, he was always making music, hella creative."
It wasn’t long before the two friends started making movies together. Ten years later, they seem like an iconic duo.
“Who are we like? We us. We Joe and Jimmie and someday people will be like “We’re like Joe and Jimmie,” says Fails.
Even if you didn’t know them, they’d stand out. Fails is tall, six feet or so. He’s wearing his signature knit hat and cool demeanor. Talbot is about 5’4'' and wearing an oversized tweed jacket and a San Francisco Giants hat. They have the same teetering walk. They finish each other’s sentences and egg each other on to tell stories.
The sprinkler story
“You should tell your sprinkler story,” Talbot tells Fails.
This is Talbot in his typical role of setting Fails up as a storyteller. And for Fails, this is a typical story.
“I was walking back home one night and a nice little, ya know, hipster dude or whatever was walking, I was walking behind him," he says. "And I could see him looking back like he was uncomfortable, because I was walking behind him. It’s late at night, I understand, I’m big and black." Fails half-laughs.
The hipster dude crossed the park away from him -- and then -- the sprinklers in Precita Park turned on.
“And he walks through the sprinklers. And I’m across the street and he’s looking at me the whole time while he’s getting drenched in the sprinklers. And I’m like, ‘Hey!’ And then we get to the end of the park and he’s just drenched and I’m like, ‘Yo! I’m just walking home.’ I tried to yell that to him and then he starts running. And I’m like, 'wow.'”
“I feel like in the film there are a lot of moments like that,” says Talbot. “That sort of come from those real-life stories of what Jimmy has gone through or what friends of ours have gone through.”
Fails says he wants the film to get at the broader emotional truth of being an outcast: to be universally relatable to people across the country who are being displaced and seeing their hometowns change. In San Francisco, that’s happening fast.
“We’re trying to capture the soul of it before they take it away,” Fails says.
They promise the film will have that soul. Talbot and Fails often pull their own unique characters off of San Francisco streets, asking strangers to become actors in their films and celebrating their eccentricity. Sounds good, right? But when I pry for some more details on specifics, the two are tight-lipped.
The film is still in pre-production, so we’ll have to wait to watch those scenes. But while you wait for its release, you might recognize Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails about town. Fails in particular is becoming a celebrity.
“The other day some dude went by, and sometimes I forget, so he’s like ‘Black man!’ And I’m like ‘Oh last black man. Why would he just yell 'Black man?'” Fails laughs.
If you see him, maybe just start with a ‘hello.’
This story originally aired in July of 2015. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January this year and Joe Talbot won the directing award. The film also won a special jury award for creative collaboration.