From executive producer and MSNBC host Joy Reid and director Yoruba Richen, The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show is a documentary film chronicling the seminal event and almost-forgotten moment in American history during which legendary entertainer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte hosted the iconic Tonight Show in place of Johnny Carson for an entire week.
Airing on the Peacock, The Sin-In follows the history-making week in February 1968 when an African American got the opportunity to host the whole week of the popular show for the first time ever, amidst a backdrop of riots across the country and the Vietnam War.
Belafonte introduced a fractured, changing country to itself for five nights with guests which included entertainment icons Aretha Franklin and Sidney Poitier as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy who was deeply impacted by his appearance on the show.
The Sin-In highlights never-before-seen footage from this pivotal week, which set the stage for the confluence of late-night and politics that we see today. Belafonte appears in the film, along Questlove and Whoopi Goldberg who recount the historic moment.
The Koalition spoke with Joy Reid about the impact of Harry Belefonte’s hosting duties, the fallout he faced and he set the stage for late-night talk shows today.
“1968 was an extremely momentous year in US history. What’s really poignant about the film is this was February of 1968 and just months later both Dr. King and then a month and a half after that Robert Kennedy Jr. were assassinated. This was a year of assassination, this was a year of tremendous change. It was just the years after the Voting Rights Act which we just lost John Lewis.”
“It was just a few years after the Civil Rights Act. This was an incredibly turbulent era. It was the Nixon era. It was the beginning of the Southern Strategy era. And so you got a lot of everything from riots in the wake of Dr. King’s death, and before that, and most of the riots you saw in the late 1960’s was because of police killings of a Black man. Black Lives Matter was in full effect in 1968 and in the late 1960’s,” said Reid.
“This was quite a time for Johnny Carson to make the decision to seed a week of the most valuable airtime in the business: late night. Johnny Carson being probably the most powerful and popular person on television other than Walter Cronkite. To give that to this Black actor, this Black Hollywood figure who was also known as an outspoken Civil Rights speaker, knowing what that could mean and knowing his audience could rebel and could refuse, these sponsors could rebel and NBC could say, “hell no”; it was brave on both of their parts. It’s a story of generosity, taking risks and the benefit of it, and it’s a story of courage on the part of Mr. Belefonte to take that week and make of it something more than entertainment because he made it poignant, he made it meaningful, he made it historic,” Reid continued.
The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show will air on Peacock on Thursday, Sept 10th.
Check out our full interview in the video above.