In 1968, performer and activist Harry Belafonte became the first Black person to host a full week of an American talk show when he took over for Johnny Carson to host five nights of “The Tonight Show.” It’s easy to think, watching the first several minutes of “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show,” a new documentary about the event: “How do I not know this?” But the answer to that question comes just as easily a bit further into the film: at a time when NBC taped over old episodes of the show as a cost-saving measure, the majority of the episodes Belafonte hosted no longer exist. That lack of footage makes this event that much more fascinating to learn about, while also making it more difficult for this documentary to tell its story.
Director Yoruba Richen works well with what she has, however. Belafonte, now 93, was interviewed for the film at length, and he’s a delight every time he pops up to share his memories. One of the first moments at the top of the film show him going over what the guest list was for that week; at a time when American television was dominated by squeaky-clean series largely made for and by white people, 15 out of the 25 guests he had on the show that week were Black, and included the likes of Aretha Franklin, Bill Cosby, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, and Dionne Warwick. At a time when late night TV mainly served the purpose of being a fun half hour to allow viewers to wind down before bed and rarely got political, Belafonte’s week hosting was a big political statement. He and his guests discussed race relations and the Vietnam War. He encouraged the Smothers Brothers to perform some of their content that was censored by their own network, CBS.
The biggest thread the documentary follows stems from the two episodes that thankfully do survive: one which featured Senator Robert Kennedy as a guest, and the other featuring Martin Luther King, Jr. Both men had visions of a future the world never got to see; both of them were shot and killed later in 1968. And as the film points out, both were at a bit of an uncertain place in their lives—Kennedy hadn’t yet announced his bid for the presidency, and King was under fire for shifting gears to help poor people (including poor white people), which many younger Black activists believed was counterproductive to their cause. But it’s wonderful and insightful to see both of these men talking to Belafonte, King in particular. In the clips we see, King—sandwiched between Belafonte and actor Paul Newman—appears more at ease than he typically does, his sense of humor shining through as he cracks a few jokes, followed by a more sobering moment as he says that he has made peace with his death.
“The Sit-In” does a good job of padding out the rest of its runtime with a brief rundown of Johnny Carson, the culture in both entertainment and the country at large in 1968, and Belafonte’s career both as a singer and actor and as an activist—all important things for viewers who may not be familiar with any of that to know heading into this movie. Some of it feels reiterative, and occasionally it seems like “The Sit-In” could have dived deeper on certain subjects—like Carson’s unwillingness to get overly political on “The Tonight Show,” despite sharing Belafonte’s politics—but much of what it is unable to do is due to lack of resources: a lack of people who can comment on the subject, and the aforementioned lack of surviving footage to reference.
But besides Belafonte, the filmmakers were able to interview a few of the still-living guests from that week to comment on their experience, including musicians Warwick, Petula Clark, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. The other talking heads—including many with talk show experience, like Tamron Hall, Questlove, and Robin Theade—either weren’t alive at the time or were too young to remember watching Belafonte on “The Tonight Show,” so they have little in the way to say on that experience outside of speculation on how important that time was. But they do have some crucial things to say about the current state of late night television. The most moving moments of the film are its final ones, where the interviewees talk about how, with a few exceptions, the majority of talk shows (especially the most widely-viewed ones) are still dominated by white male hosts to this day. That’s only one perspective viewers are getting, especially as late night shows have become very political in the decades since the 1960s. But otherwise, little has changed since that week in 1968. As Belafonte asks, “What have we missed with trying to reach those people with our message? I’m now 90 years old and I’ve been in this game ever since I’ve been a teenager.”
“The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show” is streaming for free at the virtual St. Louis International Film Festival through November 22. It is also available to stream on Peacock TV with a free subscription. Runtime: 75 minutes. Rated TV-14. 4 out of 5 stars.