San Francisco native Jimmie Fails is the force behind The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a film about his experience in the gentrified Fillmore District. The film follows Jimmie Fails, a character Fails’s names and molds after himself. Literally equipped with only the clothes on his back, Fails is a young black man seeking to re-acquire the home his grandfather built in 1946. Fails’s grandfather, who is also named Fails, built the home that would house his family. Once the property falls from the grasp of Fails’s descendants, the familial ties dissolved shortly after. The loss displaces Fails’s father onto the street, his mother into obscurity, and his aunt outside the city. Fails’s displacement anchors the story in a tale of brotherhood conveyed by his relationship with best friend Monty. Monty becomes his brother’s keeper by taking on his friend’s struggle. Monty, who houses a displaced Jimmie, illustrates that no one is without a home when encased in true friendship. Fails seizes his own space when the white couple who occupies the Fails’s former family home loses the property following the loss of their matriarch. Fails then moves into the vacated home to resume a narrative to which his grandfather literally laid the foundation.
Jimmie Fails, architect and executor, exacts the black man in America whose bodily labor birthed what would become a contention in their oppressor’s estates. Credited as the first black man in San Francisco, Jimmie Fails the first proves that Africa is not a place but the spaces created by her descendants. In a world that only made a space for black people at the foot of a pseudo pedestal, Jimmie Fails made a place for himself. Grandson Jimmie Fails takes on a similar stance in seeking to re-claim this space.
Rather than wait for the very system that abducted his familial property and collective personhood to give back his grandfather’s house, Fails takes what has been taken from him. This act provides an interesting conversation surrounding reparations in structure and content.
Fails, as the author of this project, also takes ownership of his collective narrative, well at least partly. Fails pairs with white childhood friend Joe Talbot who directs the movie. This appears more than ironic as white direction appears to be the catalyst for criticism within the film. This irony proves bothersome as the film’s conception reveals only a partial retaliation. Namely, the film’s conception suggests that there are parts of white supremacy that Jimmie Fails dislikes. To dismember white supremacist conflict into parts is to individualize both the systemic struggle and the solution. Our systemic disenfranchisement and systemic solutions as black people was never about individuals and nor should our solutions. In proceeding toward progress, it is imperative that we do not individualize a collective epidemic, and it is even more imperative that we as a collective view non-black roles in telling our narratives as an opportunities taken from a black person.
This individualized approach to a collective conflict correlates to a recurring line spoken throughout the film. Particularly, white characters consistently state that they “do not want to call the police” on Fails. This statement alludes to the direct threat the soldiers of white supremacy pose to black people, but this line also supposes that calling the police is an extremity to which they desire to remain estranged. Here, “calling the police” equates to lynching,cross-burning, or any conspicuous b act connected to terrorizing black people, but as evidenced in the contemporary displacement that conspicuously follows gentrification, calling the police is not the sole way to pose a threat to black people. Here, viewers also witness an attempt to individualize a collective demon. Commonly, those who individualize white supremacy and its many manifestations downplay its pervasive evil, and almost always revel in individualized solutions that do virtually nothing for a larger issue of racism that remains unsolved.
The film attempts to illustrate the black collective by intertwining themes of the black experience, homelessness, self-medication, premature death, and severed familial bonds. These themes all come crashing together in Monty’s one-man play that functions as a wake for a fallen friend and an intervention for what Monty views as his friend’s myth-making. Because documents omit Jimmie’s grandfather as the brains and muscle behind the revered Victorian home, like the black families evicted from communities built to nurse their systemic wounds, western documentation erases Jimmie Fails the first. To clarify, Monty states, in front of his audience, that the first Jimmie Fails did not build his family home. The announcement results in upset and an pervasive sour reaction from Monty’s audience. It does not, however, matter whether Fails’s grandfather built the familial home. Individual achievement garners clout, but obscures the collective contribution made by black people. What I mean here, is that slaves did not build this county; black people build this country. Therefore, the victorian home in the film, represents a constructural contribution black people collectively consummate.
So while Fails’s title revises the “first black” honorable mentions that continue to suggest a progress yet to arrive, The Last Black Man in San Francisco appears a cautionary tale. While Monty’s grandfather, played by veteran actor, and San Fran native Danny Glover, exudes a physical blindness that obscures the changing reality around him, The Last Black Man in San Francisco exposes that others remain equally as blind to gentrified spaces. It is perhaps Grandpa Allen that provides the breadcrumbs to contest the general consensus that this film is about gentrification. Gentrifcation correlates to the countless attempts to spatially and biologically remove black people from the white hegemonist’s “pinky and the brain” attempt to take over the world. Moreover, this systemic disappearing act that the contemporary climate banally references as gentrification is not gentrification at all but genocide.
As Neely Fuller Jr once stated: “If you don’t understand Racism/White supremacy, what it is and how it works , everything else you think you understand will only confuse you.” –Neely Fuller, Jr.. Dr. Francis Cress Welsing resumes Fuller’s teachings in The Isis Papers, with the bold assertion which informs the systemically asphyxiated that this lack of understanding could very well lead to our collective genocide.
So for now, it’s the last black man in San Francisco, Brooklyn, Oakland, Atlanta, or Washington D.C., but if our conflicts remain individualized or a systemic oversight, it may very well be the last black man (or woman) in America, or period.