In February 1968, New York City resident Jeanette Turner was 21 years old and working as a sales attendant at Manhattan’s now-defunct luxury department store, B. Altman’s. Waking before dawn for her early morning shifts, Turner would typically be fast asleep when Johnny Carson’s iconic Tonight Show aired weeknights at 11.30 pm. But like many other Black Americans, she stayed up for the momentous week her celebrity idol and fellow Harlemite – singer, actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte – took over Carson’s desk as the talk show’s surprise guest host.
“It was an exciting time,” recalls Turner, now 76. “We all loved hearing Harry Belafonte talk, so to watch him host this television show was historic. Even his speaking voice was like magic; it brought automatic attention to what he was saying.”
The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show is a documentary covering the five nights Belafonte, a trailblazing performer and dedicated advocate with Caribbean roots, was handed the reigns of a show that, till then, was a predominantly white institution. Featuring contemporary interviews with Belafonte, Whoopi Goldberg, Questlove and many others, The Sit-In also unearths unknown audio and photos, illuminating how one week changed television culture forever.
According to The Sit-In’s director Yoruba Richen, Carson pushed for Belafonte to fill in that week because he had “the chops to speak to a large audience”. However, the hosting stint almost didn’t happen, Belafonte told political journalist Joan Walsh when she first interviewed him about it in 2013 (Walsh co-produced the documentary).
“I felt totally inadequate to fill that chair. Johnny brought a Nebraska sense of the American mosaic that was unique to that slot and that time. I told him, ‘I can’t do what you do',” Belafonte said. But when Robert Sarnoff, head of NBC’s parent company RCA, stepped in and promised Belafonte control of the guest list, pitching it as an essential step for race relations, he accepted.
Belafonte transformed The Tonight Show into a multicultural and political experience. He opened every episode with a song and even showed home movies of family vacations with his then wife, Julie Robinson, and their children. Fifteen of his 25 guests were Black American, including Hollywood stars Sidney Poitier and Lena Horne, singer Dionne Warwick, comedian Nipsey Russell and basketball star Wilt Chamberlain. He also hosted Native American singer and activist Buffy Saint-Marie, actor Paul Newman, British singer Petula Clark, and the Smothers Brothers’ controversial comedy act.
“All of these people came with a social point of view,” says Belafonte of his guest list. “That was my goal: to articulate a particular point of view. We were at the peak of social and political struggle in the country. America was awakened. The viewership was astounding.” Belafonte’s hosting week ratings were solid, and according to Walsh, in New York at least, they were higher than Carson’s usual numbers.
“It was unprecedented for Carson, a white man, to hand over the mic to Belafonte, a Black man, for an entire week during a time when racial tensions were at an all-time high,” says The Daily Telegraph’s entertainment reporter, Mibengé Nsenduluka. “In Australia, that would be like Kamahl replacing Eddie McGuire for a week. It would be groundbreaking television.”
Perhaps fatefully, the only interviews from Belafonte’s Tonight Show run that withstood being taped over (a common television network practice at the time) are with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert F. Kennedy. These deep conversations were among the last television appearances before they were both assassinated.
As a viewer, Turner recalls how impactful Belafonte’s week in TV hosting was, especially while America was embroiled in a divisive election with racial tensions flaring. “He spoke elegantly and was calm even in tense situations. People listened to him. We loved Harry Belafonte for always reminding us of our power.”
After his week hosting The Tonight Show, Belafonte thanked Johnny Carson and his guests in a full-page ad for Variety. He called his time on the show a ‘sit-in’, reflecting the vernacular of protests that involve one or more people occupying an area to promote political, social or economic change.
“Incredibly, it has been 53 years since a Black American man got a prime-time seat at a commercial network in the United States, and in Australia, we still don’t have a regular breakfast program or prime-time non-sports panel show, hosted by an Indigenous Australian,” says Antoinette Lattouf, senior journalist, co-founder of Media Diversity Australia and author of the soon-to-be-released book, How to Lose Friends and Influence White People.
“And we should note that while Belafonte’s week-long stint was historic, it wasn’t the sort of change that stuck. Since its inception, six white men have hosted the Tonight Show; this means women and people of colour are still not getting a permanent seat at the table,” adds Lattouf.
In his memoir, Belafonte recalls saying goodbye to the all-white Tonight Show audience this way: “I am fully aware of how many of you have been offended by the politics aired on this show this week. None of it was meant to offend. But all of this was consciously arranged by me to give you all a taste of what’s being said in rooms that many of you may not know or enter. Thank you for listening.”
The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show is now streaming at SBS On Demand
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