The sitting, a documentary directed by Yoruba Richen (The Green Paper: A Guide to Freedom, The new black), follows the first time that an African American hosted an evening television program for an entire week.
Belafonte's guests included entertainment icons like Lena Horne, Paul Newman, and Aretha Franklin, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, months before they were killed. The document features interviews with Belafonte, Whoopi Goldberg, Questlove, and others recounting this historic achievement on television amid the political and social problems the country faced at the time and continues to grapple with today.
Last call to the Oscars: Harry Belafonte and Spike Lee in the chilling scene of & # 39; BlacKkKlansman & # 39;
Richen spoke to Up News Info about the impact of Belafonte's concert and activism, how this documentary is timely and relevant in our current society, and how the night can move the needle when it comes to representation.
DEADLINE: His 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 nightly online talk show for a week. So, let's start with the genesis of this project. What made you want to follow this documentary and tell this story?
YORUBA RICHEN: Well I got to the movie through producers Val Thomas and the journalist who wrote the original article the movie is based on, or the movie is inspired by Joan Walsh, who is 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 Tonight's show and it had all these icons of artists, actors and politicians.
You know, I always considered myself familiar, you know, quite familiar with the history of the African American media. I had heard of Harry Belafonte, but had never heard of this week and this incredible moment in 1968. Like, you know, the divisive time as the world exploded, I thought it was fascinating. So I definitely wanted to know, you know, more about this, and how do we make this a movie?
DEADLINE: The documentary mentions that there are not many archived images (of the week). I know you mentioned that a guy had a couple of days that he had recorded the audio. What kind of research did you have to dive into to put all this together?
RICHEN It is interesting with the documentary in general, and especially with this film. We were telling the story of this week, but one of the big challenges is that we only had one hour of filming. So the question really was, how were we going to tell this story without the images of the week? Does the story of the week tell without the week and only that time? So we went in knowing that.
The idea was always that there are so many great images of the guests, that we would use the images of the guests to recreate what it felt like and what it was like. And of course we had Harry interviewed. That is how we initially faced that challenge. But then, like you do when you make a movie, you try to find something.
We were told that (the footage) did not exist. Carson's files didn't have it, but we keep asking people if they had seen this week or if they knew what images existed. It was through the Paley Center that we found Phil Gries, who is the audio archivist, and that is how we discovered that material. He happened to have two of the nights.
In terms of general research, again, it was around this week in 1968, but it really was how Harry saw what was happening in the world and Harry's relationship with these guests, so that helped narrow it down. That is the place from where we started. That dictated what information and contacts were needed in terms of archival material.
DEADLINE: When you first approached Harry about this project, what was your initial reaction? Was he willing to do it immediately, or was there any question?
Wealth: The producers approached him. That was before he got into the project, and I think when they had lunch with him he was kind.
DEADLINE: The documentary focuses on this moment in 1968, and as you mentioned, it was a very divisive time. The documentary mentions how culture was really changing when it comes to race relations. In your opinion, why do you think Harry was the person who was able to break those barriers back then?
Wealth: When I started this movie, 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 got in so many different areas. Then, by 1986, Harry was a superstar on stage, on screen, on television and in film. So, start with that.
Here's this superstar who's been in all of these media. He was an activist, and continues to be an activist, but he was an activist in the Civil Rights Movement where he brought artists to the Civil Rights Movement, a visibility that he had not had before, and is essential to do so. , of course with Dr. King. He has activism. He has this stardom and all these means.
I think Gina, her daughter, says it best, that she was so nice and, in this way, did not threaten this dominant audience, even though her politics, you know, was considered radical at the time, or at least progressive, and I had a point of view. So he was the type Johnny knew could interpret what was happening across the country and around the world in this divisive moment. I think it makes a lot of sense.
DEADLINE: So when you're putting together a documentary like this, what kind of parallels have you seen with what's happening now in our current environment?
Wealth: Yes This is why we were so excited when we received the news that we would be debuting in Tribeca, because … obviously, the situation is different, and having the film festival take place in the spring just before this election, just before these divisive elections, which, of course, is what we had in November '68. So I think the parallels are that we were in a real division in the nation. People say this division is new, but it's not at all, and & # 39; 68 was a period of time where you can see that that's the case.
There is also a violent reaction. I think we are experiencing a backlash with this president, and you know, the Reverend (William) Barber calls it the Third Reconstruction that we are in. There was that backlash that started in '68 for all the gains that had happened during the civil rights movement. Those are the two biggest challenges I see. It's also interesting how the night has really become a way for so many people to 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 that the conversations about race that we had over 50 years ago are some of the same conversations that we still have today?
Wealth: Absolutely Well, in the United States, you feel that this is the endless problem in our society, racism, and what else can I say? We just filmed Ahmaud Arbery and the woman (Breonna Taylor) in Kentucky who was shot. This is what we have been dealing with since we were brought to this country, and it seems that we are making progress here and there, but this country has never taken into account the possession of its racism and its continued racism, and until we do. that is the same as always.
DEADLINE: Would you say you are optimistic? We have made progress, but as you said, there are still many things that were fought for in the 1960s that we are still fighting for today. Are you still maintaining hope and optimism for the future?
Wealth: You know, on my public face, I do. I think we have to be, or I will speak for myself. I have to be optimistic, because if you have no hope, what do you have? So I firmly believe it. I believe we have the power to change and that if we cannot do it, we do our best to try. When we look at the situation we are in now with the coronavirus, it has really ripped the thin layer over all the inequality that plagues our society. And that includes race and inequality. So I have hope, and maybe hope is different from optimistic. I will always keep hope, but optimism is difficult right now.
But I will say that figures like Harry are a great inspiration, and seeing his continued struggle through the years and his belief in social change, I think it is very inspiring.
DEADLINE: After all these years and all the progressive steps that we have taken in this country, why do you think that the networks still have difficulties in entrusting people of color, women, people from marginalized communities to give night shows?
Wealth: Yes, I think until we have a person of color running a network. … I mean, we've never had that before, right? There have certainly been gains, of course. We know that, but the fact is, until we have each other in the last decision-making chair, it won't happen. I mean, it's the same with Hollywood, too.
DEADLINE: So there is an interesting line that Harry says in the movie. He says, and it could be killing this, but he said: "Art without content is not art." I started thinking about it, and I'm thinking about everything with all the new platforms, with the TikTok and all these different things that are considered art, and I wanted to get your opinion on it. What was your interpretation?
RICHEN I think there is art that can serve different purposes, right? There is art that is entertainment, and there is art that is more educational, but hopefully also entertaining. As a filmmaker, I also want to make entertaining movies. I think for Harry, he made the decision, and he was talking about it, 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 is different for the artists and the viewers, what they are 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 movie was slated to be shown in Tribeca, which has been canceled. Are there alternative plans to screen this film?
RICHEN We are talking to distributors at this time. So that's where we are.
DEADLINE: How did you get into documentary film?
Wealth: I started as a theater person in my previous life when I was young, and then I did a lot of theater and went to the performing arts at La Guardia High School here in town. 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, making a short movie. for a class, and I've always loved the documentary.
But it never seemed like you could have a career. I certainly didn't see many people who looked like me doing it, but when I made this short film it all clicked and I thought, "Oh, this is how I can follow my creative sense and the sense of storytelling while also saying something, the content that Harry talked about. " So I moved back to New York and started climbing. I had a great mentor at St. Clair Bourne, an African American documentary filmmaker, pioneer filmmaker.
He is no longer with us, but he hired me for the first job I had and then guided me through his other initial projects, and that's how I started. I went to ABC News for a while, and I had a chance there. That was good training, too, and I worked at Democracy Now as a producer. So I've always combined news and documentaries that way.
DEADLINE: What do you expect people to take away from you when they see your movie?
RICHEN I hope people are entertained with the amazing footage we were able to unearth and find and show the brilliance of these guests. I hope you see the parallels that exist today, and find inspiration in Harry and the work he was doing at the time, and then also see television and the night and what we can demand of the networks in terms of representation.