THE SIT IN: HARRY BELAFONTE HOSTS THE TONIGHT SHOW, a new documentary from Peacock, premieres today on the streaming network. Part of its origin story begins with Nation national-affairs correspondent Joan Walsh’s 2017 coverline story for The Nation, “When Harry Met Late Night.”
From executive producer and MSNBC host Joy Reid and director Yoruba Richen, THE SIT-IN chronicles the seminal event and almost-forgotten moment in American history during which legendary entertainer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte hosted the iconic “Tonight Show” in place of Johnny Carson for an entire week. Watch the trailer her
Walsh, who coproduced the film, is available for select interviews from New York City to discuss how she uncovered the history-making week in February 1968 during which an African American hosted a late-night television show for the first time ever.
“When the old folks say television used to be different from the profit-driven, ratings-obsessed, news-as-entertainment industry of today, they don’t always have good counterexamples,” wrote Walsh in 2017. “But a few years back, I came across a perfect one: the week in February 1968 when, at the height of the Vietnam War’s Tet offensive, as riots were wracking major American cities and the Democratic Party was coming apart, Johnny Carson handed The Tonight Show over to the legendary Harry Belafonte, who proceeded to use the platform to introduce white America to his world of art and activism.”
Then, as now, our country was on a precipice, roiled by internal turmoil and a palpably unstable future. The story of America in the late ’60s offers a framework to explore the nature of change and progress, hope, activism, and reactionary forces.
Belafonte created a radical, amazing high-low, black-white mix of pop culture and politics. Searing, in-depth interviews with Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.—mere months before both men were assassinated—are paired with a young Bill Cosby, the blacklisted African-American singer Leon Bibb, and actor Paul Newman, who played his trombone.
“All of these people came with a social point of view,” Belafonte recalled to Walsh. “That was my goal: to articulate a particular point of view. We were at the peak of social and political struggle in the country. America was awakened. The viewership was astounding.”
Shattering racial barriers and norms, 15 of 25 guests that week were African American. But for many Americans, the breakthrough is lost history; and by fate or coincidence, the only two interviews to survive are the tapes of Kennedy and King—which we’ll be publishing on TheNation.com.
Walsh continued: “Today, watching King and Kennedy come alive, in flickering black and white, conversing with the gentle but probing Belafonte, reminds us of our great loss. It hurts. Yet the intimate conversations just months before their awful murders shows that they didn’t have all the answers, either. I’ve always felt that in 1968 we’d lost the heroes who’d have magically led us into the new country we were struggling to become; yet they looked as lost as we are…. This is not to minimize the tragedy of their assassinations. It is just to say the country was headed for a reckoning, with racism, with poverty, and with the limits of America’s global role, that King and Kennedy might not have been able to make that any less painful.”
ABOUT: Joan Walsh, a national affairs correspondent for The Nation, is the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America. She is a co-producer of the new documentary film, THE SIT IN: HARRY BELAFONTE HOSTS THE TONIGHT SHOW.
THE SIT-IN is a production of Big Beach and is directed by Yoruba Richen and executive produced by Joy Reid. Valerie Thomas and Joan Walsh serve as producers. Leah Holzer and Peter Saraf also executive produce. Belafonte appears in the film, along with Questlove and Whoopi Goldberg who recount the historic moment.
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