‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ is comedy, culture, gentrification and history

the-last-black-man-in-san-francisco
Jimmie Fails’ grandparents. Screenshot from film trailer.

This movie doesn’t exist yet. The script is finished, but right now The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a five-minute trailer. 

The trailer that’s asking Kickstarter fans to make it a movie is about the life of Jimmie Fails, his buddy and his grandpa’s old home that he wants to buy in San Francisco’s Fillmore District.

“It’s a universal story for anybody who feels like an outsider in their home town,” Fails said in this video.

So how do I know the trailer that’s asking fans on Kickstarter to become a movie has gentrification, comedy, culture and history? Well the trailer is a pretty good indicator, but so is the neighborhood, Fail’s family history and the times we live in.

Gentrification is history

The Fillmore District’s Marcus Bookstore is where I learned the meaning of my name – Khari means “kingly” in Swahili. Until the owners were evicted last year, it was the largest African American bookstore on the West Coast of the United States. I was just passing through, reporting on the neighborhood for a class at San Francisco State University where I was getting a degree in journalism.

Half a century ago, Fillmore District residents laid down in front of bulldozers meant to level homes condemned by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. The agency has played a role in shaping housing and business in the community for more time than Fillmore District has been considered a black neighborhood.

Like many African Americans who came to work in shipyards during World War II, Fails grandpa came to San Francisco from the South. Japanese people who lived in the area were taken to internment camps and the neighborhood became known as the “Harlem of the West.”

Like Harlem in the 1920s, the Fillmore District had its own black renaissance. Jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday played nightclubs. James Baldwin and all manner of black intelligentsia spoke at Marcus Bookstore.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco isn’t the first crowdfunded story about the historically black and Japanese neighborhood. Harlem of the West, a photo book, raised more than $15,000 in March.

Last May, after decades of operation, Marcus Bookstore shuttered after being evicted. In a letter posted on the door of the business at the time, the owners called themselves victims of “San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s slaughter of the thriving African American Fillmore District.” It was the last black-owned business to survive redevelopment.

Generations before private buses to Silicon Valley became controversial, gentrification was rocking the district.

Today, neighborhoods that used to be majority black in San Francisco now have a black population by percentage in the single digits. Want some more history? See this detailed timeline.

Comedy + culture

The Last Black Man in San Francisco isn’t just about black flight and citywide gentrification brought on by tech money. It’s also about two goofy buddies figuring out their place in the world, like the real life relationship between Fails and his friend (and the film’s director) Joe Talbot.

In an interview with Vice, the friends talk about how they met as kids because of a fistfight and how they became close and explored their neighborhood together.

Check out the trailer and pitch videos. I think it’s easy to tell Fails and Talbot can bring the funny.

Talbot and Fails have collaborated on projects together since their teen years, the pair told KQED. They also talked about how the culture of the city they grew up in and call home is changing.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco campaign has some pretty cool rewards named after SF neighborhoods. You can get some of the music Talbot made for the movie, a poster, a “Where’s Jimmie” T-shirt and a PDF copy of the full script. With 27 days to go at the time this story was published, the project has raised roughly $25,000.

Know someone displaced because the rent is too damn high in San Francisco?

Oakland-based photographer Colleen Cummins, a good friend of mine who also graduated from SF State, is doing an ongoing photo project about people who can no longer afford to live in the Bay Area. It’s called the “Why We Left” series.

 To see her work so far and let her know if you want to be a part of the project, check her out on Medium.

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Khari Johnson
Khari is founder and editor of Through the Cracks: Crowdfunding in Journalism. He also writes about bots and artificial intelligence for VentureBeat. He has built news startups in the U.S. and Europe for the last decade.

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