Premiering in the US on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock, last year, The Sit In is that rare and beautiful thing: a documentary that tells you a story you (probably) don’t know. Yoruba Richen’s film zaps us back to a week in 1968 in which the suave African American entertainer Harry Belanfonte hosted the Tonight Show for five nights and drafted in, well, everyone as a guest: Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Aretha Franklin, Paul Newman, Dionne Warwick, Sidney Poitier and tons more, some of which have faded into TV obscurity (the Smothers Brothers), others less known but still going strong (I for one am happy to have been introduced to the extraordinarily cool artist and activist Buffy Saint Marie). Fifteen of his twenty-five guests were African American.
The cultural importance of that week is difficult for a UK audience to grasp for several reasons. Partly, it’s because the late night chat show, that cornerstone of American TV culture, has never really been a thing on this side of the pond. There have been various attempts to replicate the format (most successfully Graham Norton’s early-noughties Channel 4 show) but mostly they’ve not had the staying power. As a result, we don’t really understand the fuss: sure, we know that a bunch of interchangeable brown-haired, white men in suits do some celebrity comedy schtick in the evenings with a house band, a massive desk and a fake view of the New York skyline, and that two of them are called Jimmy and another one is James Corden pratting about in a car, and that occasionally the clips go viral on YouTube, but that’s basically it.
The importance of those shows doesn’t really penetrate past that. In America, though, Late Night (deserving of those capital letters) is huge; an evergreen, agenda-setting mainstay of the TV schedules, something which every entertainment or comedy channel worth its salt must have. The Tonight Show, currently presided over by one of those interchangeable Jimmys, is the daddy of them all, having been running on weeknights pretty much without a pause since 1954. The most famous of Tonight’s hosts was Johnny “here’s Johnny” Carson, the deceptively sharp mid-western everyman that steered the ship for an astonishing thirty years. Carson was just six-years into his tenure in ‘68, already making his mark but not quite the powerhouse he would become.
Another element that is difficult for us to grasp from our Anglocentric 21st century position is the powder keg nature of American society in the late sixties. This was a country in which racial segregation was both legal and brutally unremarkable, in which the Klu Klux Klan was a movement that bordered on mainstram, and in which Belafonte himself had caused uproar at NBC already when the very white Petula Clarke touched him briefly on the arm during a musical number. It was, apparently, the first time a man and a woman of different races had touched on live US television. It had only been a year since the Supreme Court had finally put a stop to individual states’ ability to declare interactial marriage illegal. Amid all of this, there was a hugely unpopular war going on in Vietnam – a war in which African Americans were making up a disproportionate share of the cannon fodder.
It was into this battered society that the genial Carson offered a Black man one of the highest profile roles in American television – five nights hosting the Tonight Show. Belafonte was an inspired choice, incomparably dashing, whip smart and well connected. He also had a knack for bringing the best out of his guests – the footage of the great Martin Luther King Jr, rightly remembered as an impassioned and serious public speaker, cracking jokes is absolutely wonderful, as is Bobby Kennedy’s embracing of social issues he’d previously dismissed. Hearing Belafonte bantering with Newman and Poitier is a joy.
What’s fascinating is that it turns out most Americans didn’t know about this either. NBC had long-ago recorded-over all but two of Belafonte’s five historic episodes, regarding them as a waste of good, usable tape. The Sit In sprang from an article written by The Nation’s Joan Walsh, who upon stumbling across the story back in 2017 couldn’t believe more people didn’t know about it. Director Richen does an excellent job of establishing the context, utilising key Black voices like Whoopi Goldberg, Questlove and the Black Lady Sketch Show’s Robin Thede, alongside more journalistic names – Walsh herself (who is also an exec producer here), Late Night expert Bill Carter and Dr. King biographer Taylor Branch. Best of all is the presence of Belafonte himself, still sprightly and compelling in his 90s, still inspired and inspiring on America’s ongoing civil rights crisis.
It’s not the most cinematic of documentaries – this is, after all, a celebration of a television event – and its visual grammar is the grammar of television itself; it is, however, succinct in its storytelling, passionate about its themes and as fascinated by its subject as the viewer undoubtedly will be. For British audiences (especially, you suspect, white British audiences) it’s a snapshot of another world, one that is in some ways long past, but in others still very much resonating with our own; making The Sit In timely and pertinent. On one level it’s a civil rights history lesson, on another an exploration of the power of celebrity and on a third a celebration of Late Night itself, exemplified by the punch-the-air moment when the ratings reveal how powerful Belafonte’s impact must have been.
The greatest strength of The Sit In is as a lesson in both how far America has come and how far it still has to go. Belafonte spent a week filling in, fifty-two years ago, the first and last African American Late Night host until Arsenio Hall in 1988. Of the current big Late Night names, only three – The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah on Comedy Central and Showtime’s Desus & Mero – are Black, all of them on cable channels. There are as many white men called James (Kimmel, Fallon, Cordon) sat behind those big desks under the studio lights, setting America’s agenda, as there are people of colour. We’ve got a long way to go.