Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Culture Fit: Last of the DIY Auteurs? 

Wednesday, Apr 22 2015

There's no easy way to classify The Last Black Man in San Francisco. In a nutshell, it's a story about the hard, cold truths of the current socioeconomic environment in a city that's shed thousands of its black residents.

I learned of the independent film project, currently in nascent stages of production, in November. It instantly resonated.

Out of curiosity and a hunch the story might be similar to those of other black San Francisco families, I spoke with the project's spearheads, San Franciscans Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, to learn more.

At first blush, the plot outlines the contentious issue of the city's declining black population, but as Talbot and Fails envision the film, it will explore deeper insights. They want universal themes to be the heart of the story — friendship, culture, longing, and family. They're going for an artistic examination of the human condition, the existential search for acceptance, love, and meaning.

For co-screenwriter Fails, a 20-year-old native San Franciscan who shares a version of his family's story in the film, the project is bittersweet. He, Talbot (the film's 24-year-old director), and other members of the still-forming production team recently held a meetup and fundraiser at a Hunter's Point restaurant. They showed a trailer for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Fails discussed the film with the audience.

The two first-time filmmakers fit wholly into the long, rich San Francisco tradition of DIY, seat-of-the-pants, start-up auteurs — independent film directors and producers who also include a younger Francis Ford Coppola, Marlon Riggs, Philip Kaufman, and Ryan Coogler, among others.

"We all feel really strongly that we want to tell a different kind of story here," Fails says. "I'll be playing a version of myself — but we also want to make the character more universal. This is also a story about friendship, and about the adventures and experiences the two main characters share as they move around the city."

The story grew out of Fails' family's experience: His grandfather, like many African-Americans in San Francisco, arrived during the World War II years, worked a well-paying job, bought a home. But by the early 1990s, there was no generational wealth transferred down to Jimmie Fails' generation from many years of hard work and fiscal responsibility.

The Fails family story is similar to that of thousands of black San Franciscans during the past 20 years, and it is coming together at a time of heightened awareness among some city officials, culture-watchers, and academics about the shrinking black population here.

The black population declined by more than 35 percent in San Francisco between 1990 and 2010, and today represents about 6 percent of the city's total population of more than 805,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

My family's story is marginally similar to that of the Fails, in that most of us no longer live in the city, having left during the past decade or so for work; in the cases of at least a few of my relatives, some also left San Francisco due to fatigue with the subtle yet insidious racism that many blacks experience in professional settings. We still own residential property in SF, and are loyal to the city.

But none of us are disillusioned or surprised by the recent turn of geo-economic-political events, including predominantly white populations moving into the Mission, Dogpatch, and other neighborhoods that were decidedly black or Latino as recently as the late 1980s. In San Francisco, manifestations of racism in modern times have taken forms considerably more subtle, if no less insidious, than what exists in the Deep South.

Though Fails is barely out of his teens, he has experienced the best and worst the city has to offer, and he tends to come down on the side of optimism — a sentiment I happen to share. "I love being a San Franciscan," Fails tells me.

Talbot, who is from the Bernal Heights, first met Fails years ago in the neighborhood near the Army Street public housing units, where Fails lived after his family lost its property. Both young men were avid makers of short videos, "just odd takes on the stuff we'd see around the neighborhood," Talbot says.

Through local arts nonprofits and the city's film community, Talbot has spent the past few years assiduously building on the film production studies he undertook while attending the High School of Performing Arts in the city.

The visual glue that holds together the narrative of The Last Black Man in San Francisco involves scenes that depict the way the main character fills his days. He rambles around the city on Muni buses or a large skateboard, traveling from Bernal Heights, to the Fillmore, to downtown. Along the way, he observes or interacts with strangers and friends and family members, his conversations with friends outlining the confusion, stress, and sorrow he experiences while trying to stay rooted to the city during a time of constant change.

"We want to make a movie that's of professional caliber; I'm a stickler for that," Talbot says. "I don't know that there's even much of a 'political message,' per se, as much as it is just us trying to make sense of what's happening in the city lately."

Fails is now a full-time student at City College of San Francisco, while Talbot is the point man in taking Fails' story to a fully realized independent film. Late into the evenings, they work on writing the script. Talbot spends much of his days scouting for production-team members and raising money. This has been the duo's routine for the past several months. On April 26, they'll launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund completion of the script and the start of local production.

The hope is to produce a film that engages. "If you can tell a compelling human story, and if it has political implications, people will recognize that," Fails says. "But the best way to reach people is through a human story that everyone can recognize."

It is too early to take bets on the film's chances for commercial or even artistic success. But I certainly am rooting for the project to reach a wide audience.

Correction: The original version of this story, and the version that appears in the April 23 print edition, contained several errors including incorrect details about the film's director, Joe Talbot. Additionally, the headline included a typo. SF Weekly regrets those errors, which have been corrected in this updated version.


About The Author

Amy Alexander


Comments are closed.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"