Ever since Jimmie Fails was a kid growing up in San Francisco he bounced from scene to scene. “I used to be a gang banger, a band nerd, hanging out with theatre nerds or the Irish rugby kids that fought all the time,” the 24-year-old SF native explains. “I was everywhere.” He would skate around but one place he would always end up was a Victorian house in the historic black Fillmore District.
Here, in the Harlem of the West, Jimmie sat in front of the house his grandfather built and from which his family was displaced when he was six. The moment proved pivotal – after that, he ended up in housing projects or homeless – which is why he would always go back and sit in front of the only place he ever called home.
At 10, Jimmie, then living in the Mission, struck up a friendship with Joe Talbot, a kid from the middle class neighbourhood, Bernal Heights. They would walk and talk together, sharing stories about their lives. Joe started making short films, and eventually Jimmie felt comfortable telling the story of the house. Joe thought it would make a good film.
After a long process, involving a Kickstarter campaign, the film The Last Black Man in San Francisco premiered at Sundance this year. It stars Jimmie, as a fictionalised version of himself, who enlists his theatre nerd friend Mont, played by Jonathan Majors, to reclaim the house his grandfather built.
A soulful, offbeat charmer, written by Jimmie, it’s a gorgeously realised testimony to how the city has changed. It’s also a reclamation for the marginalised and the really weird that made the city what it was. We caught up with Jimmie at the UK premiere in London in early October to talk about inspiration, growing up in San Fran and the way the film reframes the city and its communities.
How did you and Joe meet?
I was 10 years old, and he was 13. I grew up in “the projects” down the street from his house. Precita Park brought all the kids from the neighbourhood together. All the kids went there. The kids from up the hill, the middle class neighbourhood, and the kids where I was, in low income housing in the poverty stricken neighbourhood. It was a melting pot of Latino kids, Samoan kids, black kids, white kids, everybody. That’s just how San Francisco was.
Why was your grandfather’s house so special to you?
My grandfather owned a house on Carmelita Street. He died before I was born. There were a lot of family issues that led to the house being foreclosed. I’m not very in contact with them. My friends became my family over time. That house represented the only time I knew family. After that, I was always jumping around everywhere, homeless shelter here, housing project here. I lived in a car at one point. Foster care I didn’t like too much. I always ran away from foster care.
Was the city a safe haven?
San Fran was why I always had a place to go and resources. If I left foster care, I knew friends I could go to. There were good people who could still afford to live there. If I was a homeless kid now in San Francisco, I don’t know what the fuck I would do. That’s scary because a lot of my friends who grew up in the city dealt with drug addiction and alcoholism in their families and were homeless. You had to couch hop. A lot of San Francisco kids grew up that way.
How did you decide to address gentrification in the story?
The story is mainly about how the city changing makes people feel. When the place that made you who you are starts to feel foreign. It’s a very weird feeling. We also wanted to make a love letter to it. We wanted to show how San Franciscans see San Francisco, from our perspective.
When did you notice the city changing?
In 2008, I started to notice that there were less and less black people. I noticed tech infiltrate the city that year. As time went on it got worse. There’s barely any more native San Franciscans. It’s less than 4% black now, which is an unfathomable number for a place that’s still seen as the liberal epicentre of America. It’s just a façade now. That’s not how it is. I live there still now. I’m moving to LA, which is not something I ever thought I’d say. But it is better for working, all of my friends are down there. And frankly, San Francisco doesn’t inspire me in the same way it did because people have ruined it.
We see certain aspects of black male culture in a different light in the film, like when Jimmie gets criticised by his father for his style.
That actually happened. My dad would see me with my skateboard and say, “Why you dressed like a white boy?” My dad was always out in the streets, in and out of jail. So of course, when he saw my style, he’s going to be like, “the fuck why?” There’s black skaters and young black kids that are just different. I definitely wanted to give them something they could relate to instead of everyone’s always a fucking thug or a slave or an athlete. That’s all we ever have and it’s like, can we have some more nuanced characters for black people to be able to latch onto?
What kind of kid were you?
When I was in “the projects”, I was a little weirdo. I was still hanging out with them doing bad shit but I was into my own shit. I grew up homeless and always being everywhere, and always having to adapt to my situation. So I can be with any crowd.
Are you sad to be leaving San Fran?
A little bit. I can always come back and it’s my home. But I’m not that sad to be leaving. I’m just spreading my wings at this point and I’m bringing city with me wherever I go.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is in cinemas from 25th October.