Film captures the loss of black San Franciscans
SAN FRANCISCO— Actor Jimmie Fails draws from his own story in his portrayal of a young black man navigating a shifting racial landscape in "The Last Black Man in San Francisco." His tale is a familiar one in affluent U.S. cities.
Like his character, Fails is a third-generation San Franciscan whose family lost their home in a once-flourishing African American neighborhood called the "Harlem of the West." His relatives scattered as housing prices skyrocketed and he struggles to get by in a city that's not as black as the one he grew up in.
"It's often like you're the last black man in the restaurant, the last black man in the barber shop," Fails, 24, says. "San Francisco feels like a woman that you loved that doesn't love you back, that you're trying to get back."
In "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," a 2019 Sundance favorite that opened nationally Friday, Fails is a skateboarder and home caregiver who crashes at night in his best friend Mont's room at his grandfather's house in San Francisco.
All the while, Jimmie dreams of reclaiming the grand Victorian home he says his grandfather built in the Fillmore District, before his father lost the home to drugs.
Black people once migrated to San Francisco, drawn by its reputation for tolerance. But the city shed nearly 3,000 low-income black households, a 17%, decrease, between 2000 and 2015, according to a report by the Urban Displacement Project at the University of California, Berkeley. Many were driven out by rising costs and redevelopment.
It's a decline seen in other major U.S. cities. The African American populations in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago have shrunk since 2000, and Washington, D.C. is no longer a black-majority city.
The film won a Sundance directing award for Fails' childhood friend and collaborator, Joe Talbot. It features another San Francisco native, Danny Glover, as Mont's grandfather.
Talbot, who is white, says it has become that much harder to make ends meet, even in the five years they've taken to make the film.
San Francisco companies Lyft, Uber and Pinterest have gone public this year, driving up fears that masses of millennial millionaires will take up all the city's already scarce housing.
The median sales price of a house was $1.4 million and the median rent for a one-bedroom was nearly $3,700 in April, according to analytics firm CoreLogic and listing site Zumper. Meanwhile, the city's one-night count of homeless increased 17% in two years.
"I have friends that work three jobs to get by in the shadows of the bigger industries, the big money makers here," said Talbot, 28.
San Francisco never had a large African American population, hitting its peak of 95,000 in the 1970 U.S. Census, or 13%. That figure tumbled to 11% in 1990, and then to just under 8% in 2000.
A recent estimate has the black population at a smidge over 5%, the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey reports. Moreover, the Urban Displacement Project reports San Francisco lost people across all racial groups in the low to middle income groups, gaining only in the extremely poor and high-income households.
"All of our concerns about San Francisco becoming a super-exclusionary place have come true," said the project's director, Miriam Zuk.
Other Bay Area cities have shed black residents as housing costs rise. African Americans made up nearly half of Oakland, birthplace of the Black Panther Party , through the 1980s and part of the 1990s. They are only a quarter of residents today.