Fails, 24, co-wrote the story with childhood friend and fellow San Francisco native Talbot, 28, who is white. They met years ago when, distinct from today, black and white working- and middle-class families often occupied many of the same neighborhoods.
As fictionalized, Fails’s real-life yearning for a forever home is a psychic pendulum that swings the protagonist through emotional hills and valleys, from whimsically enthusiastic attempts to reclaim the house his family once owned, to swelling optimism, to anxiety followed by muted anger as defeat splashes him and, finally, to cold acceptance.
Since premiering this year at the Sundance Film Festival, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” has been heralded by film critics for its sumptuous cinematography and dexterous treatment of a fraught socioeconomic trend roiling cities nationwide: gentrification.
Fails’s family, like the protagonist’s in the film, “lost” the classic Victorian in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, where Fails lived as a child, a precursor to the present day, in which black residents’ displacement has escalated dramatically.
“This is what I wanted to show to gentrifiers,” Fails told me after a recent screening at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. Fails said that the film is designed, in part, to demonstrate the “heartbreaking” impact on those who are being displaced in San Francisco.
“What you’re watching [in the film] is his hope,” Tichina Arnold, who gives a fierce, memorable performance as Fails’s Aunt Wanda, told me. “That house was his hope.”
Fails described his character and his fictional best friend, the young black aspiring playwright Montgomery “Mont” Allen (Jonathan Majors), as ‘‘naive” for believing that Fails can reclaim the house, which is owned by an elderly white couple.
In real life, Fails is watchful, engaging — and pragmatic. His character’s naivete is a key “difference between Jimmie in the film and Jimmie right here.” He has no illusions about returning to his real-life family home. “Clearly, that’s not going to happen.”
“I wish it could happen, that I could go back to my house and make it exactly like it was. The house that I knew and that my family lived in, that meant so much to me, but that’s not reality,” Fails said. “But . . . that’s why it is so heartbreaking. That’s what you want to show to gentrifiers.”
As I viewed it, though, another telling emotion surfaces during a scene late in the film: anger. Its significance has gone over the heads of most critics. It emerges in words delivered to Fails by Arnold’s character.
“If you leave, it’s not your loss,” Aunt Wanda tells Fails. “It’s San Francisco’s.”
And after a beat, she calmly adds: “F--- San Francisco.”
For me, that angry assessment of Fails’s predicament landed as powerful validation.
And it reminded me that, while I do miss living full-time in my hometown — especially as my family members and lifelong friends still reside there and in the greater Bay Area — I’ve resolved to emotionally detach from San Francisco.
I feel fortunate that the grounding I received from my family and from the freewheeling environment of San Francisco during my formative years (the ‘60s through the ‘80s), including egalitarian values, were forged by growing up there. I choose to let go of the initial pain I felt when a white male editor early in my journalism career demonstrated, by cutting my position, that my professional potential and real-time contributions were not as important as budget considerations. The press corps in San Francisco, not unlike many tech companies there now, has a history of espousing diversity but in practice does a dismal job of making it happen.
Of course, a lot has changed in the interim.
The film doesn’t explicitly reference the technology companies that have rapidly reshaped the city’s economy and its neighborhoods. But in our discussion after the Washington screening, it was clear that the filmmakers are mindful that white and Asian tech workers are reaping the benefits of tech-sector salaries, widening the wealth inequality gap that is a major instigator of black residents’ displacement. The city’s booming tech sector employed 1,000 black workers, less than 2 percent of the more than 47,000 tech workers in San Francisco, according to 2015 Census data.
Like Fails and Talbot, by my mid-20s, I gained an ability to connect dots that aren’t always visible to others. Their film illuminates through cinema — America’s most powerful mass media format — the full emotional impact of black displacement on those who are displaced. Will “The Last Black Man” spur decision-makers in my hometown — San Francisco’s politicians and business leaders, along with the affluent young newcomers who often appear dismissive of black residents — to course-correct and address the out-migration of blacks from the city?
The historic election in June 2018 of the city’s first black female mayor, London Breed, may emerge as a positive sign of genuinely inclusive progress. At the same time, similar to perceptions that were projected on former president Barack Obama, expecting a lone black politician to magically correct decades’ — or centuries’ — worth of inequitable conditions blacks have experienced due in large part to white racism is not realistic.
Black residents make up 5.3 percent of the city’s 883,305 residents, down from nearly 13 percent of the total population in the mid-1970s. For survival’s sake, many black San Franciscans learn to manage a dynamic that best-selling author Robin DiAngelo calls “White Fragility,” interactions with “well-meaning” white people who fail to acknowledge racial biases and, in some instances, their own racist beliefs and actions. In the city’s workforce, despite San Francisco’s reputation as a liberal bastion, directly calling out whites for racially biased behavior can result in “death by pencil,” the withholding of employment and other economic advancement opportunities.
James Baldwin discovered this aspect when he explored the city’s black community in the early 1960s, and it is an instructive moment in the documentary “Take This Hammer,” which focuses on Baldwin’s time in San Francisco 56 years ago, as Talbot reminded me last week.
Moreover, black residents, including Mario Woods, have been killed or beaten by San Francisco police officers after failing to “comply.”
As Arnold’s character makes clear, Black San Franciscans in 2019 have reason to be angry, too, though you’re not likely to glean this from most of the reviews and think pieces covering “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”
But while the anger conveyed by Arnold’s Aunt Wanda in that f-bomb line, and its defiant, pragmatic resolution, escapes most reviewers, it is instantly recognizable to current and former black residents, myself included. At the same time, my late-breaking resolve to emotionally detach from San Francisco doesn’t exist tension-free. It lingers between genuine loyalty to my hometown — its geographic beauty, and the bold cultural bone structure that harbored centuries’ worth of artistic innovation — and my need for self-preservation.
Black residents of the city today feel under siege, and this film isn’t likely to immediately provide much material relief. Still, the luminous portrayal of the humanity of Fails and his family members and friends, their expressions of the longing for stability and refuge, is a breakthrough. It portrays my hometown and black residents there more honestly than any other major motion picture has done in my lifetime.
“Even as all these things are happening, and even as there are all these reasons to say f--- San Francisco, like Tichina’s character says, this movie now out in the world, it’s giving me hope,” Talbot said. The film’s recent hometown premiere at the Castro Theater boasted “one of the most diverse audiences” that Talbot had seen in a long time in the city, he said.
Overwhelmingly, I was moved by the young filmmakers’ depiction of a San Francisco that prioritizes contemporary black residents and illuminates our history. For now, I’ll maintain healthy skepticism about what comes next, even as I’m hopeful that San Francisco can regain its soul.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said London Breed was elected mayor of San Francisco in December 2017. She became interim mayor in December 2017; she was elected in June 2018.