THE SIT-IN: HARRY BELAFONTE HOSTS THE TONIGHT SHOW
In 1968 The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson handed over hosting duties for an entire week to Harry Belafonte. Viewers accustomed to hearing the standard “Heeeere’s Johnny” introduction at the beginning of The Tonight Show had their expectations subverted when the show opened with “Heeeere’s Harry” and were greeted by a person of color hosting the most popular late-night talk show on American television. Media representation of an increasingly diverse spectrum of individuals has come a long way since 1968. Harry Belafonte’s hosting of The Tonight Show in 1968 was a phenomenon that fell quite outside the parameters of the mainstream.
Johnny Carson epitomized everything white America was comfortable with on their television screens in 1968. Carson was white, midwestern, charismatic, and his schtick early in his tenure as host of The Tonight Show was fairly non-political. Privately, Carson was keenly aware of the social unrest occurring in 1968. He, however, was not quite ready to address the political and racial unrest sweeping through the country on The Tonight Show. He decided that if anyone was going to break that ice on a late-night talk show, it was going to be Belafonte.
Belafonte was perfectly positioned to be the person of color that brought the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam protests, and the counterculture to white American homes. Belafonte’s one foot in the white mainstream was established by his music—he sang calypso songs that were accepted by white America. His other foot was firmly established in the counterculture. Belafonte was a visible participant in the Civil Rights Movement and a political activist. He was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and understood the more radical Black Power movements that contrasted with MLK. In fact, Belafonte was a go-between MLK and the more radical strands of the Black Power movement that thought MLK’s maneuverings and worldview were passe.
Director Yoruba Richen does a good job of contextualizing Belafonte’s week as host on The Tonight Show. There were not many channel options in 1968. American culture coalesced around the television shows offered by NBC and CBS. Unfortunately, the shows Americans coalesced around presented a predominantly white paradigm. As Whoopi Goldberg observes in a segment on the television landscape in 68, science fiction shows set in the future never included people of color. This gave the appearance that the existence of non-whites would be erased in the future. The Sit-In adequately demonstrates how Belafonte was a break with the ideology of the white entertainment industry. For one week, Belafonte brought the counterculture into white bedrooms by infiltrating a late-night show that white viewers found soothing enough to end their night on.
He invited guests that were musicians, celebrities, and activists, all of whom were politically involved, and most of whom were personal friends. Belafonte’s week as host had him interview MLK at a pivotal moment right before his murder—the Poor People Campaign, a campaign that interwove issues of race with issues of class. Belafonte interviewed musician/activists like Lena Horne and Aretha Franklin. He interviewed Robert Kennedy at a moment in which Kennedy had been pushed and prodded to take seriously the concerns of people of color. Both MLK and Robert Kennedy would be murdered shortly after their appearances with Belafonte.
The Sit-In focuses on Belafonte’s appearance on The Tonight Show, but in essence it is a documentary on the upheavals of 1968; and that is where The Sit-In comes up a little short. It does not shed new light on 1968. One wishes that the segments that interview the older Belafonte reflecting on that week, and on his life, would have been longer. But those weaknesses are more than made up for by the historical through line drawn in the last minutes of The Sit-In. Richen connects the racism that existed in 1968 with the racist revival that was mainstreamed starting around 2016 in the US. Richen also connects that one week in which Belafonte presented himself as a person of color in late-night television to The Arsenio Hall Show, to Trevor Noah, to all the late-night shows in 2021 that overtly talk about political issues.
Belafonte was truly exceptional. In Belafonte you had a mainstream celebrity that managed to slip counterculture ideas into the homogenized world of American popular culture. Pulling off that trick is one thing in 2021; it was another thing in 1968.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.