Harry Belafonte’s ‘Tonight Show’ Gig Is the Best Way to Understand Him newsusface

In our current streaming landscape, you can find a documentary about nearly every famous figure and cultural event you’ve ever heard of, from the heyday of Barney to the short-lived HQ Trivia craze. Many seem superfluous and tend to fly under the radar. However, in the wake of Harry Belafonte’s passing, there’s one that fans of television history shouldn’t overlook.

Tributes to Belafonte are still rolling in following the 96-year-old’s death on Tuesday from congestive heart failure. It’s hard to encapsulate the breadth of his career without doing an intensive deep dive. His limited filmography, which never elevated him to the leading man-status of his friend and industry rival Sidney Poitier, doesn’t capture his entire celebrity. Nor does his record-breaking music career. Yet, a 2020 documentary charting his week-long residency on The Tonight Show in 1968 offers a helpful entry point to understanding all the complexities of his cultural stature.

As a talking head says at one point in the film, “there are many sides to the legend of Harry Belafonte.”

The Sit-In: When Harry Belafonte Hosted The Tonight Show, directed by Yoruba Richen, is available to watch on Peacock and has a runtime of only 77 minutes. Likewise, it’s a relatively fast-moving film that may require some rewinds. But the goal of the movie, like any good documentary, is to pique curiosity, not just about Belafonte but the cultural moment his career embodied.

Between the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Vietnam War protests and an evolving Civil Rights Movement, 1968 was one of the most tumultuous and pivotal years in American history. At 11:30 p.m. every weeknight, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson offered Americans a level of escapism and comic relief in the safety (for some) of their homes. The documentary explains that the iconic presenter was not outrightly political and was hesitant to “get on a soapbox.”

But Carson didn’t avoid the social upheaval of the times altogether. Instead, to put it in modern activism terms, he decided to “pass the mic” to someone who was already famously outspoken: Belafonte. At that point, the actor’s most notable screen contributions, Carmen Jones and Island In The Sun, were more than a decade behind him. And his energy was focused on music and social justice work. Anyone familiar with Belafonte’s activism knew that he was often conflicted about his personal fame and obligations to the Black community.

But when Carson basically gave him carte blanche to host The Tonight Show on his own terms, he couldn’t turn down the opportunity. And according to Belafonte, who is interviewed in the doc, his first night on the air ended up being the highest-rated episode in The Tonight Show’s history.

Journalist Tamron Hall, who’s featured in the film, speculates that Belafonte likely booked his own guests—many personal friends of his—on top of hosting. The week’s lineup was an eclectic collection of artists and activists such as Dionne Warwick, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom and Dick Smothers, Paul Newman and Poitier. Unfortunately, because NBC would record over old episodes in those days, most of these interviews are lost to history—though the doc thankfully features some audi0 recordings from the week provided by archivist Phil Gries.

Due to a lack of footage, The Sit-In primarily zooms in on King and Kennedy’s guest spots. The interview clips are not exactly enjoyable and mostly unsettling, given their fates later that year. Nevertheless, one of the most compelling portions of the documentary focuses on Belafonte’s relationship with Kennedy and how he helped mold the senator from someone who was initially reviled by the Black community to a more empathic leader.

The Sit-In also contextualizes Belafonte’s hosting gig within our current landscape of political punditry. The film posits Belafonte’s stint as a forerunner to the satirical news genre that’s ironically lacking in people who look like the Black actor. In 1968, Belafonte’s incorporation of heavy topics and entertainment was extremely novel and, of course, consequential. To get a sense of how stringent networks were about political content, the doc includes clips from The Smother Brothers, whose lampooning of President Lyndon Johnson on their variety show got them in trouble with CBS.

All in all, the film does its best with a lack of archival footage that would, otherwise, seem crucial. Richen manages to fill in these gaps with Belafonte’s own recollection of the historic week. His anecdotes are ultimately more profound and informative than the commentary from some of the film’s talking heads, like The Roots drummer Questlove, comedian Robin Thede and journalist Wesley Morris. Still, anyone who watches this film will walk away with a clearer understanding of Belafonte’s appeal and radicalness as a public figure. Above all, viewers will get to know him as an innovator.

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