Jimmie Fails takes on a new role in San Francisco, even while acknowledging a complicated relationship with his hometown.
Actor Jimmie Fails, metaphorically The Last Black Man in San Francisco, admits to contemplating an exit from his native city for the vibrant arts scene in Los Angeles.
“I’ve been saying for years I might leave,” he shares during a recent Zoom call. “When I return from working on a film, the City doesn’t feel as inspiring. I need a change of scenery, for a bit. But I don’t know if I’m ready. It’s hard to leave here.”
Fails, 27, isn’t packing up boxes in his Mission District pad. Yet.
His community ennui also infused The Last Black Man, the award-winning 2019 semiautobiographical film that Fails starred in and cowrote with his childhood friend, director Joe Talbot, son of swashbuckling San Francisco journalist-author David Talbot. While the movie spotlights gentrification and the continued marginalization of Black residents in their hometown, it simultaneously celebrates the City’s idiosyncrasies — what makes it such a special place.
Fails expressed it best in one particular scene in The Last Black Man set on MUNI, where he overhears a conversation between two voluble women: “Excuse me,” his character stoically interjects. “You don’t get to hate San Francisco. You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
Perhaps it’s that love-hate relationship that has Fails, despite mulling a move, also becoming further entrenched in the local scene. As of this month, he joins forces with another San Francisco native as a board trustee of Value Culture. The cultural, spiritual and arts nonprofit was founded in 2019 by Adam Swig, who serves as its executive director.
“Joining Value Culture is a big deal for me,” enthuses Fails. “I’ve never been on the board of anything. My goal is to create a cultural fair that people enjoy and feel proud to say they live here. A lot of natives nowadays say negative things about San Francisco. But I want them to feel the same pride they once held. That’s my hope for Value Culture: a roll call of our community, inspiring San Franciscans who are still here, fighting to survive and create art.”
Fails and Swig met a couple of years ago through a crisscross of mutual friends comprising street artists, skate kids, blue-bloods and hot-shots. On paper, they may seem like improbable compatriots. Yet a deep connection formed between the pair due to their shared love of San Francisco and its rich history, namely its multicultural neighborhoods.
Swig is the grandson of civic leader Roselyne “Cissie” Swig and a scion of the philanthropic family that once owned the Fairmont Hotels. He attended Drew High School and previously lived in Sea Cliff. The City in which Swig grew up was a bold-faced celebration of swank soirees, Gold Rush descendants, five-star restaurants and debutantes, all chronicled by the late columnist Herb Caen.
Fails’ San Francisco was grittier, located in such far-flung corners as the Excelsior. He briefly lived in a group home at the convent of St. Philip the Apostle in Noe Valley. There, he was inspired to succeed in his studies, resulting in an academic scholarship to attend Archbishop Riordan High School. “Riordan was absolutely a culture shock; I was the minority,” he recalls. “I was one of the only Black kids on academic scholarship and was made fun of for that. But Riordan provided a transition to serious study — tests every week and I had to buy a TI-84 calculator for math homework.” For much of his youth, Fails resided in the low-income Bernal Dwellings Apartments.
“While Jimmie and I grew up on different sides of the track, we’re just two local guys and hit it off,” says Swig. “San Francisco is a small town with a cross-cultural energy that easily connects natives.”
Swig and Fails became collaborators last year. In June, Fails was appointed by San Francisco Heritage, the architectural and cultural advocacy nonprofit, as its artist-in-residence. He spent a month honing his craft amid the historic Doolan-Larson Residence on the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets. The attic served as a theatrical stage where he developed movements and characters for film roles. He worked on his screenwriting and created a zine. Seven local photographers — including Nate Cohen, Sasha Netchaev and Jenna Harkins — styled Fails in cinematic portraits documenting his experience in the house and the neighborhood.
In October, Swig, as a member of the Doolan- Larson Residence and Storefront Task Force, curated benefit pop-up events and exhibitions in the residence’s ground-floor gallery. For its inaugural affair, he tapped Fails, whose photo retrospective, Seven by 7, charted his artist-in-residence experience. Sales of limited-edition books, portraits and Fails’ zine benefited Value Culture’s event programming.
Fails hopes that natives and newbies alike find renewal through Swig’s enthusiastic initiatives to boost legacy institutions and foster inclusive cultural involvement. “In one month last fall at Doolan,” says Swig, “we supported 20 artists, six organizations and reactivated a formerly empty retail space. Haight is a tourist destination, but it’s a real neighborhood, too. A core Value Culture goal is engaging the next generation of artists and creators to participate in our shared culture.”
In 2022, depending on the Omicron effect and public mask requirements, Value Culture has plans for a monthly $18 subscription that provides discounted access to events — potentially including an unofficial post-FOG Design+Art bash, the SFJazz Gala After Party, Golden Gate Park Bandshell concerts and Value Culture’s popular Goat My Valentine shindig in February (yes, it’s a fundraiser for nonprofit City Grazing and its scrub-chomping, Instagram-friendly goats).
In addition to his nascent involvement with Value Culture, Fails is currently filming I Wanna Dance With Somebody, a biopic on the late, tragic songbird Whitney Houston, coproduced by legendary music man Clive Davis and slated for release late this year. Fails plays a youthful version of comedian Eddie Murphy. And he and Joe Talbot now share a production company, Longshot Features, which is based in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Since The Last Black Man’s soaring success, Talbot did decamp for Los Angeles to make his art. Although Jimmie has resisted that temptation so far, he acknowledges that San Francisco today is a far cry from what it was when the filmmaking duo met as kids in Precita Park. Sandwiched between dot-com implosions, their San Francisco was a halcyon, early-aughts era when the City was a beacon of accessibility to a majority of all comers.
Fails cites the pandemic’s economic fallout and tech industry–induced wage gap as issues fueling San Francisco’s inequity. “It goes upper class to lower class; there’s barely a middle class anymore,” he observes. “When people feel like they can’t survive here, crime rises, homelessness increases and everyone is frustrated.”
Echoing the elegiac storyline of The Last Black Man, Fails laments the City’s continued gentrification and dwindling Black population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019 only 5.6 percent of residents identified as African American or Black. In 1970, that figure was 13.4 percent. “There’s so few of us … most of whom live below poverty,” he says. “My dad lives in the TL [Tenderloin]. He’s sober now. But walking through the TL, most of the people struggling are Black.”
When it comes to his hometown, Fails has strong opinions. For example, the Longshot Features website boldly dubs its founders “The Frisco Kids.” Among locals, that City moniker remains a fighting word. But Fails feels the rigidity of the old Caen adage and title of the columnist’s 1953 book, Don’t Call it Frisco, excludes classes of diverse San Francisco natives.
“Saying you can’t use ‘Frisco’ completely shuts down the Black community and other communities of color,” he explains. “Growing up, impoverished communities here adopted a sense of pride and ownership referring to their city as Frisco. That old Caen rant? He wasn’t even from here.” (Caen was born and raised in Sacramento and described himself as “The Sackamenna Kid.”)
Whatever one’s feelings for this current edition of San Francisco — love it, hate it or thinking about leaving it — Fails offers this savvy advice: “Just don’t call our city ‘San Fran.’ Ever.”