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The Last Black Man in San Francisco

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Nathan Heller: The Last Black Man in San Francisco was funded in part by Kickstarter and was drawn from Jimmie Fails’s own experience: he did grow up poor in the city, and his family did once live in such a house. In that sense, it’s a report on an African-American presence that truly is fading—the percentage of black residents in San Francisco is less than half what it was in 1970, and sits today around a measly six per cent—and it captures the experience of displacement, of travelling among spheres in which you have increasingly little say or stake and trying to blend in. At Sundance, the film won a directing award and a special-jury prize, and it captured viewers’ imaginations as a human window onto the city’s rocky transformation. Fails and Talbot have been friends since late childhood, when Fails was in a housing project and Talbot was living nearby, and they made the movie while living in Talbot’s parents’ home. Their film is frank not only in its portrait of the real-estate pressures that make San Francisco a shorthand for self-stifling unaffordability but in its reports on the habits and moods of the place. From the platinum-hued outdoor light to the rollicking skateboard rides across town, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” feels of San Francisco, and its characters are vivid with the offbeat pursuits that give the city’s residents their bizarre glow. In the world of the film, as in real life, everyone is bound by a common anxiety, and the movie gently suggests that many middle-class San Franciscans can see aspects of their own displacement panic in the black experience of Jimmie Fails. The fear is not just that you’ll lose your place in town but that the place will lose all memory of you.

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