A few years ago, the historian Jill Lepore cobbled together a brilliant book about Jane Franklin (Ben’s sister) from a few dozen letters and a small diary called her “book of ages.” As someone who does a little history on the side myself, I found Lepore’s feat slightly miraculous. Even if there’s scarcely any trace left behind of a person or moment in time, it seems nothing can stop the most determined chronicler from breathing life back into them.
In that vein I can’t recommend highly enough the new documentary dropping today on Peacock, The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show. In February 1968, Johnny Carson asked the crooner of Caribbean folk songs to guest-host his NBC program. Belafonte, one of the most visible faces in the civil rights movement, did not throw away his shot. He loaded the stage that week with remarkable guests, mostly guests of color, who ingratiated themselves with Johnny's mostly-white mainstream audience while chatting casually about race, poverty, and the war at a fraught moment in American history.
Sadly, there’s almost no documentary evidence of that historic week, for reasons we’ll get into. And yet, journalist Joan Walsh, aided by director Yoruba Richen and producer Val Thomas, was able to piece together enough audio and video clips that they can gift us with The Sit-In, a film that, despite being fairly workmanlike in its execution, I found riveting.
Belafonte was no stranger to television. He did numerous guest appearances on variety shows in the 1950s and ’60s, and could sit down for serious on-camera chat as well. Whether you wanted light entertainment or someone to explain “the Negro question,” Belafonte was a versatile go-to guest.
What he wasn’t, as we learn here, was host material. Charles Revson, the fellow behind Revlon, which was one of the most important sponsors in TV at that time (thanks to its timely backing of The $64,000 Question), pulled out of Belafonte’s highly-rated variety show because the star insisted on having both white and Black performers on screen with him.
But 1968 was one of those years, not unlike the one we’re living through now, where everything was charged with the urgency of the moment. It was an election year, and seemed to be shaping up as a referendum on LBJ’s Vietnam War policy. But there was trouble at home, too — riots, many racially motivated, that left hundreds dead in 1964, 1965, 1966 and yes, 1967, where it wasn’t the Summer of Love in Detroit, Newark, or a lot of other cities. In the middle of all this, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, and Jesse Jackson were pivoting to economic justice and ending the war.
As the year opened, it was Johnny Carson, not Walter Cronkite, who sat behind the most consequential desk on television. Things said there resonated, because people were at ease, they had their guards down (OK, maybe they were falling asleep), and if done the right way, they were open to seeing people and hearing perspectives that they might resist at other times of the day. Carson knew that, and it was he who convinced Belafonte to guest-host for five nights.
Belafonte, in turn, got on the phone with his celebrity and political friends, and the result was powerhouse lineups night after night. As Walsh described it in her 2017 piece for The Nation, that week’s Tonight shows were “an amazing high-low pop-culture-and-politics mix,” with Sen. Robert Kennedy appearing with Bill Cosby and Lena Horne. Another night, “King kibitzed with comedian Nipsey Russell, the blacklisted African-American singer Leon Bibb, and actor Paul Newman, who played his trombone.” The list went on and on: Buffy Sainte-Marie, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, Tom and Dick Smothers, Sidney Poitier, poet laureate Marianne Moore, Met museum director Thomas Hoving. “Fifteen of the 25 guests that week were African-American,” Walsh notes. “Only Belafonte could have pulled that off.”
I’d love to link to some raw footage on YouTube, but I can’t. Back then NBC routinely recorded over its master tapes, so most of the network’s thousands of hours of finished production from the 1960s is gone. This was a time in America when fine old buildings on Main Street were torn down and replaced with Brutalist monstrosities and disasters of metal siding. We just used to do those things. (In 1972, Carson moved to California and later got ownership of his show, so everything done from Burbank resides in caves in Kansas.)
Thanks to Walsh, though, and an audio enthusiast named Phil Gries — who taped the sound off of hundreds of TV shows as a kid, including two nights of Belafonte's guest-hosting gig — we have enough audio and video here to give us a sense of what it was like to watch NBC in late night that amazing week. The Sit-In has pulled off the Leporean feat of making something big out of seemingly nothing much.
The timing of Belafonte’s hosting The Tonight Show was striking. That month the Tet Offensive dealt a devastating setback to the U.S. effort in Vietnam. In March, LBJ announced he wouldn’t run for re-election. In April, King was killed and cities across America went up in flames. In June Bobby Kennedy, then the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, was gunned down in L.A. In August, Hubert Humphrey was nominated while Chicago cops beat the crap out of Yippies in Grant Park.
In other words, The Sit-In captures the calm before the storm, when all hell broke loose and people genuinely feared for the future of the American republic — a sentiment Richard Nixon would exploit masterfully in his campaign for president. As I noted recently, we expect our comedians to bring politics on stage with them. It wasn’t always that way, and Carson’s decision to hand his valuable desk over to Harry Belafonte for a week was not without risks, as indicated by the fact that Johnny didn’t try anything like that again.
The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show is now streaming on Peacock.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.