‘The Sit-In’: Director Yoruba Richen On Documentary About History-Making Week When Harry Belafonte Hosted ‘The Tonight Show’

The Sit-In, a documentary directed by Yoruba Richen (The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, The New Black), follows the first time an African-American hosted a late-night television show for an entire week.

Belafonte’s guests included such entertainment icons as Lena Horne, Paul Newman and Aretha Franklin, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, months before were assassinated. The docu features interviews with Belafonte, Whoopi Goldberg, Questlove and others who recount this historic achievement in television in the midst of political and social issues the country faced back then and continues to grapple with today.

Richen spoke withDeadline about the impact of Belafonte’s hosting gig and his activism, how this documentary is timely and relevant in our current society, and how late-night can move the needle when it comes to representation.

DEADLINE: Your documentary is very interesting and covers a period of time that most people don’t remember — that he did this groundbreaking thing and hosted a late-night network talk show for a week. So let’s start with the genesis of this project. What made you want to pursue this documentary and tell this story?

YORUBA RICHEN: Well, I came to the film through the producers Val Thomas and the journalist who wrote the original article that the film is based on, or the film is inspired by, Joan Walsh, who’s also a producer. When they came to me and told me about this week, I’m always interested when I don’t know something and I think I should know. So this is one of those cases — the week that Harry had hosted The Tonight Show and had all these icons of artists and actors and politicians.

I always, you know, considered myself familiar — you know, fairly familiar with African-American media history. I’d heard of Harry Belafonte, but I’d never heard of this week and this incredible time in 1968. Like, you know, the divisive time as the world was exploding I thought was fascinating. So I definitely wanted to find out, you know, more about this, and how do we make this into a film?

DEADLINE: The documentary mentions that there’s not a lot of archived footage [from the week]. I know it mentioned a guy had a couple of days that he had taped audio. What sort of research did you have to dive into to put this all together?

RICHEN: It’s interesting with documentary film in general, and especially with this film. We were telling the story about this week, but one of the big challenges is that we only had an hour of footage from it. So the question really became, how were we going to tell this story without the footage from the week? Tell the story about the week without the week and only that hour? So we went into it knowing that.

The idea was always that there’s so much great footage of the guests, that we would use the footage of the guests to re-create what it felt like and what it was. And, of course, we had Harry interviewed. So that was how we initially met that challenge. But then, as you do when you’re making a film, you try to find something.

We were told that [footage] didn’t exist. The Carson archives didn’t have it, but we just kept asking people if they had seen this week or if they knew what footage that existed. It was through the Paley Center that we found Phil Gries, who is the audio archivist, and that’s how we uncovered that footage. He happened to have two of the nights.

In terms of the general research, again, it was about this week in the time in 1968, but it was really how Harry saw what was going on in the world and Harry’s relationship with these guests, so that helped to narrow down. That’s the place where we start from. That dictated what information and contacts was needed in terms of footage.

DEADLINE: When you first approached Harry about this project, what was his initial reaction? Was he up for it right away, or was there any hesitation?

RICHEN: The producers approached him. That was before I came on the project, and I believe when they had lunch with him, he was amenable.

DEADLINE: The documentary centers on this time in 1968, and as you mentioned, it was a very divisive era. The documentary mentions how culture was really changing when it came to race relations. In your opinion, why do you think Harry was the person that was able to sort of break those barriers back then?

RICHEN: When I started this film, I obviously knew who Harry was and knew about him and admired him, but the best part for me was discovering the depth of who Harry is and who he was and how his tentacles reached in so many different areas. So, by the time of 1986, Harry was a superstar of stage, of screen, of television, and of film. So, start with that.

Here’s this superstar who’s been in all these mediums. He was an activist, and he continues to be an activist, but was an activist in the Civil Rights Movement where he brought in the entertainers into the Civil Rights Movement, a visibility that it hadn’t had before, and he’s instrumental in doing that, of course with Dr. King. He has activism. He has this superstardom and all these mediums.

I think Gina, his daughter, says it best, that he was so likable and in this way, non-threatening to this mainstream audience, even though his politics, you know, were considered radical at that point, or at least progressive, and he had a point of view. So he was the guy that Johnny knew could interpret what was going on around the country and around the world at this divisive time. I think it makes total sense.

DEADLINE: So when you’re putting together a documentary like this, what sort of parallels have you seen with what’s going on right now in our current environment?

RICHEN: Yeah. That’s why we were so excited when we got word that we’d be premiering in Tribeca, because … obviously, the situation’s different, and making the film festival rounds in the spring right before this election, right before this divisive election, which, of course, is what we had in November of ’68. So I think the parallels are we were at a real, you know, divisiveness in the nation. People say how this divisiveness is new, but it’s not at all, and ’68 was a time period where you can see that’s the case.

Also there’s a backlash. I think we’re experiencing a backlash with this president, and you know, Reverend [William] Barber calls it the Third Reconstruction that we’re in. There was that backlash that began in ’68 from all the gains that’d happened during the Civil Rights movement. So those are the two biggest challenges that I see. It’s also interesting how late-night has really become a way so many people understand the world and politics, and that was the beginning of that, really.

DEADLINE: So what kind of feeling do you experience when you see the conversations surrounding race that we had over 50 years ago are some of the same conversations that we’re still having today?

RICHEN: Absolutely. Well, in America, it feels that this is the never-ending problem in our society, racism — and what more can I say? We just had the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery and the woman [Breonna Taylor] in Kentucky who was shot. This is what we’ve been dealing with since we were brought into this country, and it seems we make some progress here and there, but this country has never really reckoned with the possession of its racism and its continued racism, and until we do that, it’s the same as it ever was.

DEADLINE: Would you say that you’re optimistic, though? We have made progress, but like you said, there’s still a lot of things that were fought for in the 1960s that we’re still fighting for today. Do you still maintain hope and optimism for the future?

RICHEN: You know, in my public face, I do. I think we have to be — or I’ll speak for myself. I have to be optimistic, because if you don’t have hope, what do you have? So I strongly believe that. I believe that we have the power to change and that if we can’t do it, we put our best effort to try and do it. When we look at the situation we’re in now with the coronavirus, it’s really ripped the very thin sheet over all the inequality that plagued our society. And that includes race and inequality. So I remain hopeful, and maybe hope is different than optimistic. I’ll always remain hopeful, but optimistic is hard right now.

But I will say that figures like Harry are such an inspiration, and to see his continued fight through the years and his belief in social change I think is very inspiring.

DEADLINE: After all these years and all the progressive steps that we’ve taken in this country, why do you think networks are still having a hard time entrusting people of color, women — people in the marginalized communities to host late-night shows?

RICHEN: Yeah, I think until we have a person of color running a network. … I mean, we’ve never had that before, right? Certainly, there’s been gains, of course. We know that, but the fact is until we have us in the ultimate decision-making chair, it’s not going to happen. I mean, it’s the same with Hollywood, too.

DEADLINE: So there’s an interesting line that Harry says in the film. He says — and I might be butchering this — but he said, “Art without content is not art.” I started thinking about that, and I’m thinking about everything with all the new platforms, with the TikTok and all these different things that are being deemed as art, and I wanted to get your opinion on that. What was your interpretation? 

RICHEN: I think there’s art that can serve different purposes, right? There’s art that’s entertainment, and there’s art that’s more educational, but hopefully entertains, too. As a filmmaker, I also want to make entertaining films. I think for Harry, he made the choice, and he was talking about that, that he was going to pursue the political…he wanted to have art, his art, to be about social justice, and that was the choice he was making. I think it’s different for artists and for viewers, what they’re looking for, and I think that was for him, where he was in terms of his career.

DEADLINE: So you mentioned this before, but originally, the film was scheduled to screen at Tribeca, which has been canceled. Are there alternative plans in place to screen this film?

RICHEN: We are talking to distributors at the moment. So that’s where we are.

DEADLINE: How did you get into documentary filmmaking?

RICHEN: I started out as a theater person way back in my previous life as a young young’un, and so I did a lot of theater, and I went to performing arts at La Guardia High School here in the city. I did a lot of theater in college, and when I graduated from college in the ‘90s, I was in graduate school for something completely different, and I started working with a friend of mine, who had access to cameras, on doing a short film for a class, and I’d always loved documentary film.

But it never seemed like something you could have a career. I certainly didn’t see many people who looked like me doing it, but when I did this short film, it kind of all clicked, and I was like, “Oh, this is how I can pursue my creative sense and storytelling sense while also saying something, the content that Harry talked about.” So I moved back to New York, and I just started working my way up. I had a great mentor in St. Clair Bourne, who was an African-American documentary filmmaker, pioneering filmmaker.

He’s no longer with us, but he hired me for the first job that I had and then mentored me through their other early projects, and that’s how I got started. I went over to ABC News for a while, and I got an opportunity there. So that was good training, as well, and I worked at Democracy Now as a producer. So I’ve always combined news and documentary film that way.

DEADLINE: What do you hope that people take away from when they see your film?

RICHEN: I hope that people are entertained by the amazing archive footage that we were able to dig up and find and show the brilliance of these guests. I hope that they look at the parallels that are today, and find inspiration in Harry and the work that he was doing at the time, and then also look at television and late night and what it is we can demand from the networks in terms of representation.

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