Data prove the truth of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

Jimmie Fails, star and co-writer.
Jimmie Fails, star and co-writer.
Image: AP/Taylor Jewell
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The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a film fable about the most controversial city in the US. The drama presents a San Francisco that is prospering economically, but is in decline as a city of culture and opportunity. This is mostly due to its lack of affordability—the median home value in San Francisco is now almost $1.4 million, according to Zillow.

The movie is a brilliant meditation on what happens to a city when a massive new industry emerges but little new housing (public or private) is made to accommodate the migrants who come to serve it. The movie—winner of a special-jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival—blames no one in particular. It mourns the past with love and compassion.

Last Black Man stars Jimmie Fails playing a character also named Jimmie Fails. He co-wrote the story, which is loosely based on his life. When we meet Jimmie, a young black man raised in San Francisco, he is living with a friend in Bayview-Hunters Point, a neighborhood in the southeast corner of the city that remains predominantly black. Jimmie pines for the house he grew up in the Fillmore district, once the center of black culture in the city, but where the African-American population has been declining for decades, thanks to forced removal in the 1960s and ’70s and gentrification today. The story centers around his efforts to recover that home.

The movie’s title is an exaggeration—about 5% of the city’s population identify as black—but based on a demographic reality. The city’s black population was about 13% in 1970. Now, the city’s population is increasingly made up of people who identify as Asian or mixed race—the white population has been falling as well. The downward trend for the black population seems likely to continue. A Quartz analysis of US Census data finds that from 2010 to 2017, only around 3% of residents 18-50 who moved to city identify as black.

In the film, Jimmie’s aunt has moved to the cheaper, but still relatively expensive, suburbs of San Francisco. His mother moved to Los Angeles. This is also a fairly accurate representation of reality.

Our analysis finds that from 2013 to 2017, around 18% of the black residents that left San Francisco went to Alameda County (which includes the city of Oakland), and another 45% went to one of the other, less urban counties near San Francisco (including Solano, Contra Costa, Sacramento, and San Mateo counties). About 8% went to Los Angeles, and just over 20% left California entirely. (White residents who left San Francisco were much more likely to leave the state, at 37%,  with the most common destinations being New York City, Seattle and Portland.)

The greatest strength of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is its universal empathy. Tech is never demonized. The remarkable beauty of the city, and the richness of the lives of its residents, black and otherwise, are celebrated. At the showing I went to in Oakland, the crowd cheered at the end of the movie, with what I assume was gratefulness for the catharsis it provides.

Last Black Man is part of a wave of movies made by people of color from the Bay Area, including Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting and Always Be My Maybe. All of these films have in common a love for the region, and a desire to represent the cultural diversity of the area, as inequality rises and homogeneity grows.