The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show
(USA, 75 min)
Dir. Yoruba Richen
Late night television was designed to entertain and relax, like a cup of cocoa before bed or a comforting companion to insomnia. While the late night shows of today can be brashly political, The Sit-In shows how it wasn’t always this way. The film considers the purpose, history, and power of the late night TV slot by zeroing in on a little known era of The Tonight Show: when it was briefly hosted by a Black man.
For a week in 1968, Johnny Carson handed the reins of The Tonight Show over to Harry Belafonte, the beloved pop star, calypso singer, actor, and activist. The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show zeros in on this small but significant moment in the history of late night TV to emphasize its impact on the American people during a divisive era. With iconic guests like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Aretha Franklin, Belafonte brought an unprecedented Black perspective to a time slot that catered almost exclusively to a white audience. With so few Black comics and people of colour hosting late night TV over 50 years later, the underlying argument in this glimpse of history is that audiences need more than a symbolic gesture.
The film hinges on archival footage, naturally, which its an impressive feat considering with how little it had to work with. Only two of the eight episodes hosted by Belafonte remain in the Tonight Show archives, so director Yoruba Richen had to get creative. (The studio recorded over the other six episodes, which speaks volumes about the racial dynamics within NBC.) The film mends the hole seamlessly to the point where it comes as a shock mid-way through the movie when this fact is revealed. Richen took this challenge and transformed it into the film’s strength by using the mystery of the missing footage as a key plot point.
In the absence of the complete archive, the doc is forced to find the essence of Belafonte and his influence on the show in bits and pieces – through his appearances in other TV programs, in movies, music, etc. It assembles the puzzle with a helpful mix of present-day talking heads, including Belafonte himself. “The Tonight Show was one of the most powerful platforms of communication in the world,” quips the 92-year-old in the film, and his younger self clearly treated it as such.
The Sit-In puts a magnifying glass to what was previously a little known fun-fact. In doing so, it reveals just how significant small moments in history can be. Harry Belafonte’s sparkling spirit and ability to bridge gaps between the Black and white communities of the time shine through. The film acts as a time machine to life in America in 1968 by showing a nation of how far it has come and yet how much remains the same in terms of racial inequality. Seeing the film in the aftermath of 2020’s historic protests against police brutality and systemic racism, it’s also a reminder about how much work still needs to be done when nearly all the late night TV hosts guiding audiences through the tumultuous time were white men sitting behind desks.
The Sit In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show is currently streaming as part of ReFrame Film Festival until January 29.