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I’ve lived in San Francisco for many, many years, and yet I’d never heard the story of Charlie Walker, an African-American man with a dream and a real gift for playing the system against itself. I was delighted to learn about that part of my city’s history thanks to I’M CHARLIE WALKER, based on Walker’s book, America is Still A Place. Writer/director Peter Gilles was given a copy by Bill O’Keefe, a mutual friend of his and Walker’s and realized this was a story that needed a wider audience. O’Keefe became an executive produce.
It’s the stuff of legends. Walker, a struggling trucker about to lose everything, finds an opportunity to make a good life for himself and his family when a massive oil spill hits San Francisco Bay in 1971. It wasn’t easy. He endured vicious racism as well as corporate corruption on a scale as massive as the oil spill. But Walker would not be stopped with results that surprised everyone except himself.
When I spoke with writer/director Patrick Gilles on June 1, 2022, we started with how a city that thought of itself as so progressive could still evince a culture that was anything but, and why that’s a lesson for the present that we are still learning.
We went on to talk about good and evil; the part fate played in Gilles getting to know Walker; why former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown’s cameo isn’t as far-fetched as it seems, and the magic of perfect casting.
The film stars Mike Colter as Walker, ably supported by Dylan Baker as the evil oil magnate, Safiya Fredricks as Walker’s wife, Ann, who is anchor, Boots Riley as the bartender, and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown as the cab driver.