The new documentary “The Sit-In” on Peacock tells of the time Harry Belafonte replaced Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” for five remarkable nights in 1968. https://t.co/5EGaIVlUKO
— AP Entertainment (@APEntertainment) September 8, 2020
“Hiding in plain sight”:
… While the Vietnam War was raging and civil unrest was convulsing American cities, TV talk show host Johnny Carson did something special: He stepped away from “The Tonight Show” perch for a week.
Then something even more special happened: Belafonte took over.
For five nights, the Black singer, actor and activist entertained white middle America with his cool wit and an astonishing array of guests — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Sidney Poitier, Robert F. Kennedy, Paul Newman, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Petula Clark, Bill Cosby, Diahann Carroll and Lena Horne, among others.
That fascinating week of late night is the subject of the new Peacock documentary “The Sit-In,” which airs Thursday and celebrates Belafonte’s strategic and profound mix of art and politics…
In addition to his high-powered guests, Belafonte showed home movies of his family water-skiing and boating — conscious efforts to connect with his white audience.
“He was showing us his life,” says Walsh. “It went a long way to kind of normalize Black middle class and Black upper middle class life.”
The impact of Belafonte’s cheekily so-called “sit-in” is hard to measure but many believe it had profound effect. “That was probably the most revolutionary move that mainstream television could have done at the time,” Questlove says in the documentary.
One person watching was a young Henry Louis Gates Jr. The literary scholar would later write in the New Yorker: “Night after night, my father and I stayed up late to watch a black man host the highest-rated show in its time slot — history in the making.”…
I’ve done my best to stay away from streaming services — hardly even watch Netflix, where we’re still happily paying for the DVD shipped to us — but I’ll admit this is really tempting me. The Washington Post TV critic liked it:
… Belafonte — a superstar singer, actor and civil rights activist — took the opportunity to bring on an extraordinary range of Black artists and newsmakers and their White allies, from Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The guest list for that week, from Feb. 5 to 9, goes on: Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby, Indigenous folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, ventriloquist Aaron Williams and singer Freda Payne, among others.
Richen’s film is executive produced by MSNBC anchor Joy Reid and co-produced by Nation journalist Joan Walsh, who wrote a 2017 story for the Nation about the shows. The documentary interviews Belafonte, now 93, and several of the entertainers who appeared on the “Tonight Show” with him that week (Warwick confesses that she can’t remember what happened to her yesterday, much less in 1968, but seems delighted to hear she was a part of it), as well as present-day celebrities and culture writers about the impact Belafonte’s week had on American TV…
Fifteen of that week’s 25 guests were Black, according to Walsh’s story. Besides Kennedy, other White guests included Paul Newman, Petula Clark and the Smothers Brothers.
Belafonte was given a lot of freedom in booking guests, but when he got King (who so rarely was given access to network TV shows), NBC executives nervously asked if the show would get too serious. Belafonte largely ignored their worries. “It was a silly question,” he recalls. “We’ve got [King] here, what do you want him to do, sing a song?”…
There’s an… illuminating anecdote with this YouTube clip: