James Baldwin’s visit to Bayview Hunters Point: Racism, censorship and a vision of democracy

by Alex Cherian

Racism

In the summer of 1963, the KQED Film Unit invited author James Baldwin to investigate racism in San Francisco. Baldwin agreed to be filmed while he scrutinized the liberal, cosmopolitan image projected by the city.

James Baldwin and Orville Luster speak with youths in “Take This Hammer” in 1963. The young people’s complaints about San Francisco’s progressive veneer covering racism as virulent as in the South are remarkably similar to those voiced by Black youth today. This film is a must-see for the city’s entire Black community.
James Baldwin and Orville Luster speak with youths in “Take This Hammer” in 1963. The young people’s complaints about San Francisco’s progressive veneer covering racism as virulent as in the South are remarkably similar to those voiced by Black youth today. This film is a must-see for the city’s entire Black community.

After speaking frankly with African Americans on the streets of Bayview Hunters Point and the Fillmore, he declared: “There is no moral distance … between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.” The film was to be called “Take This Hammer,” after Leadbelly’s recording of an old work song.

Censorship

Before “Take This Hammer” was televised, KQED’s Board of Directors insisted that 15 minutes of footage had to be removed, which some felt portrayed race relations in an overly negative way. One board member stated: “It is not the function of KQED to produce inflammatory, distorted, sacrilegious, extremist programming under the name of educational television. I believe this program is all of these.”

When Baldwin learned that scenes of him speaking with Bayview residents were being censored, he disowned the film and on Feb. 4, 1964, a shortened 45 minute program aired on Channel 9 in the Bay Area. The original 60-minute version was never televised.

San Francisco State’s Bay Area Television Archive recently found the only surviving film print of the original 60-minute director’s cut of “Take This Hammer” and made a digitally remastered version available to view online from their virtual archive, at https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/216518.

A vision of democracy

At one point in “Take This Hammer,” Baldwin predicts to a skeptical group of young men: “There will be a Negro president of this country, but it will not be the country that we are sitting in now.” In the film’s opening scene, Famios Bell (aka Jackie Bell) says to Orville Luster: “I’ll tell you about San Francisco. The white man, he’s not taking advantage of you out in public, like they’re doing down in Birmingham, but he’s killing you with that pencil and paper, brother!”

After speaking frankly with African Americans on the streets of Bayview Hunters Point and the Fillmore, he declared: “There is no moral distance … between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.”

Famios’ family moved to Bayview in 1943 and he eventually worked for almost 40 years as a federal employee before retiring. When interviewed about his meeting with Baldwin by Dutch filmmaker Caroline Bins, he recalled: “I asked him [Baldwin] what’s it like to be a great writer? … He told me you have to study. You have to become articulate and you have to care.

“These things I remember, and he also told me that we would have a Black president one day. That sticks in my mind more than anything.” Famios went on to play an active role in his community, coaching basketball and mentoring youth, and this is just one example of how Baldwin’s 1963 visit had a positive impact on the neighborhood.

Preserving our heritage

At the 50th anniversary screening of “Take This Hammer” at the Bayview Opera House in February, it was announced that the film had been nominated to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Established by Congress in1989, this program was set up to preserve America’s film heritage.

Each year 25 films are selected and added to the Registry and as Librarian of Congress James H. Billington pointed out: “These films are not selected as the ‘best’ American films of all time, but rather as works of enduring importance to American culture. They reflect who we are as a people and as a nation.”

Members of the public can send in an email vote for films they want added to the Registry, which already includes titles such as “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X” and “Hoop Dreams.” If you would like the federal government to assume responsibility for preserving “Take This Hammer,” safeguarding this part of the Bayview’s unique heritage for future generations, please send your email votes to dross@loc.gov.

More details about the voting process can be found here at the Library of Congress website: http://www.loc.gov/film/vote.html.

If you would like the federal government to assume responsibility for preserving “Take This Hammer,” safeguarding this part of the Bayview’s unique heritage for future generations, please send your email votes to dross@loc.gov.

Video was shot at the 50th anniversary screening event at the Bayview Opera House in February, in which residents emphasized the film’s importance to the community: https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/218378.

The deadline to submit your vote for “Take This Hammer” is Sept. 1, 2014.

Alex Cherian is the resident film archivist for the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive at San Francisco State University. Contact him at acherian@sfsu.edu.