In February 1968, a major event in both the history of television and the history of the civil rights movement occurred, although I would guess not many people even know that it happened. Harry Belafonte filled in for Johnny Carson on the popular “The Tonight Show,” becoming the first black entertainer to ever do so.
For that one week, Belafonte changed the landscape of late night, melding entertainment and politics in a way that had never been done before while introducing white viewers to important black entertainers and celebrities.
Now, that important week in TV history is being re-examined in a new Peacock documentary, “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show.” And while the topic is fascinating and extremely important, the documentary just doesn’t quite live up to its subject matter.
In 1968, Harry Belafonte was an extremely popular entertainer, appealing to both whites and blacks. He was also an activist, working with Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the fight for civil rights. As the country became more divided over civil rights and Vietnam, more celebrities started to speak out. But Carson, who preferred to stay out of politics (other than his jokes about political figures), took another route and turned his chair over to Belafonte for a week. Belafonte assembled an impressive list of guests, including King, Robert Kennedy, Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin and Paul Newman.
Unfortunately, in 1968, NBC didn’t save old “Tonight” episodes and simply recorded over them once they were aired. So only two episodes of Belafonte’s week still exist — the episodes with King and Kennedy. Audio recordings, recorded by a fan, exist of two others.
The 90-minute documentary features interviews with Belafonte, current celebrities, historians and TV writers discussing Belafonte’s career, the week of shows, his guests and what was going on in the U.S. at the time.
I will admit that I had no idea that this event occurred, and I regretfully admit I had no idea how impactful Belafonte was in both entertainment and civil rights. So, this documentary successfully schooled me on both.
It’s also fascinating to see King and Kennedy in a casual environment showing much more of their personalities than I’ve ever seen. But instead of letting us see more of those moments and what the show was actually like, the documentary decides to give us a complicated history lesson, squeezing in way too much unrelated footage and retelling of events instead of just focusing on the week itself. The historical context is extremely important, but too many times the documentary goes off on unnecessary tangents. It’s a disappointment that we can’t see more footage of the actual show, but it would have been nice to see more of what we do have.
The documentary is still well worth watching because of the historical significance of the week and the chance to relive a somewhat forgotten part of television history. I just can’t help but think the documentary will end up being forgotten as I believe the producers missed a golden opportunity to share something amazing.
“The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show” is now available to stream on Peacock.