Saturday, February 15, 2014

Wild About Harry Belafonte

"...a film that touches the depths of who we are as a people, touches the depths of what America is as a country, and gives us a sense of understanding more deeply what our past has been..."  ~Harry Belafonte paying tribute to 12 Years a Slave film director, Steve McQueen.

If you read my previous blog entry, you know that I'm on a new entertainment adventure.  I'm doing a podcast called The Bobby Rivers Show.  In one of our shows, I talked about the immensely moving and memorable performance delivered by Chiwetel Ejiofor as the educated African-American family man kidnapped and dragged back into slavery.
                                                                           

He is, once again, sold and worked like a beast of burden.  12 Years a Slave is based on Solomon Northup's true life experience in a time when there was slavery here in the Land of the Free.  Chiwetel Ejiofor, quite deservedly, is one of the current nominees for the Best Actor Academy Award.

I am so glad U.S. moviegoers are now discovering the versatility and depth of this acclaimed British actor.  Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves attention "on this side of the pond."

Early last month, there was a reported brief disturbance during the New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner.  Armond White, a smart and often contrary critic in the circle, may have called the filmmaker a couple of unsavory names when Mr. McQueen was accepting the award for Best Director.    Armond White, one of the few African-American critics in the NYFCC, did not like 12 Years a Slave.  The controversial White was later expelled from the NYFCC.  News items on the bad conduct reported that McQueen didn't seem to be aware of the disturbance from Armond White who was seated at a table near the back of the room.

Also making news -- in a more positive light -- was the speech actor/activist Harry Belafonte delivered before Steve McQueen was handed his award.  I know a couple of critics who were present.  They said that Belafonte's speech was extraordinary.  The transcript of it is online.  I read it again thanks to the "Harry Belafonte pays tribute to Steve McQueen's genius at NYFCC Awards" article on the HitFix.com website.  You can Google it.  It's a wonderful speech.  Director Steve McQueen must have felt that Mr. Belafonte's tribute was the ultimate prize that night.

I advocate racial diversity in the  arts and in the discussion/criticism of the arts.  There are about 35 members of the New York Film Critics Circle.  With Armond White gone, I've heard that the NYFCC now has just one black critic.  One.  In a New York City organization.  That sure is a lot o' white dudes telling me why I need to see 12 Years a Slave.  And my forefathers were slaves.  In over 20 years living in New York, the weekly movie critics that I saw on the ABC, CBS and NBC network morning news shows and on the local evening news programs were mostly white males. The film review duos we saw in syndication were usually white males.  It's 2014.  I have an AARP card.  In all my life, I have never ever seen a black female or a Latina critic reviewing movies frequently on a network or local TV news program.  And I've lived in Los Angeles and New York City.  Diversity is needed to help us keep a sense of history.  Even the white liberals in Northern cities can occasionally forget.  Case in point: Last August, National Public Radio's fine Fresh Air daily show did a week-long salute to Late Night TV Talk Show Hosts.  Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno were mentioned.  So were David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon.  Joey Bishop, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak and Chevy Chase got mentioned.  Who did not get one single mention during those five hour-long Late Night Week shows on Fresh Air?  Arsenio Hall.  His show back in the 1980s was such a huge hit that it put him alone on the cover of Time magazine.  The same cannot be said of the Pat Sajak and Chevy Chase late night shows.  To me, that was a major oversight on NPR's part.  Fresh Air should have included the black host who made late night TV history.

I'm proud to have been the first African-American to get his own prime time celebrity talk show on VH1.  I was a veejay/talk show host on the network from 1987 to 1990.  NPR contributor Henry Alford was a VH1 host in the 1990s.  In his humorous memoir, Big Kiss, he wrote that all VH1 veejay/hosts in the 1980s were stand-up comedians who used wacky props -- like the melon-smashing Gallagher did.  I never did stand-up comedy.  When I interviewed guests such as Kirk Douglas, Norman Mailer, Sally Field, Jodie Foster, Phil Collins, Carlos Santana, Tina Turner, Spike Lee, Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Liza Minnelli, Marlo Thomas, novelist Judith Krantz, Dominick Dunne and Omar Sharif, I did not use comedy props.  I just did my homework and conducted the interview.  Writer Henry Alford was inaccurate.

Look at the faces of late night network talk show hosts now. Just like the New York Film Critics Circle, there's very little racial diversity in 2014.

I've blogged about the fact that when the Tonight Show originated from 30 Rock in New York City, Harry Belafonte had a groundbreaking week as the guest host while Johnny Carson was on vacation.  This was for a star-studded week in February 1968.  In the early 1990s, I was a host on CNBC's Talk Live.  I had Chiz Schultz, producer of A Soldier's Story, as a guest.  His film was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1984.  Chiz was an employee on the Tonight Show when Belafonte substituted for Johnny Carson.  That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with the singer/actor who went on to star in another feature Chiz produced, The Angel Levine (1970).

Belafonte got his dear friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, to be a guest on Tonight.  Belafonte was at King's historic Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963.  Chiz told me that Belafonte had to challenge network brass to book Dr. King.  Network executives saw the Nobel Peace Prize recipient as a black political radical and were afraid of losing sponsors.  Belafonte booked Dr. King for his first and only appearance on a late night network entertainment talk show.  Not a sponsor was lost.  Here are the two friends on NBC just a couple of months before Dr. King's untimely, tragic death.
When will NBC pull that historic Tonight Show interview out of its archives and show it to today's audiences?

Flying stand-by and trying to book flights in between flight-canceling snow storms, I wrapped up an extended stay of New York City job hunting and podcasting with a couple of days in San Francisco to visit my longtime fabulous friend, Dominic.  He and I love independent bookstores.  He works at one in the Portrero Hill area.  I highly recommend his workplace, christophersbooks.com.

Christopher's Books has the iconic entertainer's account of his special week hosting the Tonight Show.  It's fascinating and, in terms of race and network TV, still relevant.  Read chapter 16 in the paperback edition of his memoir, My Song.
Chapter 16 in Harry Belafonte's memoir, My Song, is full of network entertainment TV history that's often overlooked -- and shouldn't be.  Black performers were excluded from the network TV host arena.  Famed singer Nat "King" Cole broke the color barrier hosting a variety show on NBC in the 1950s.  His highly-rated show was canceled after a year because NBC couldn't find any national sponsors for it.  Companies didn't want to "upset" Southern viewers by sponsoring his show.  Sammy Davis, Jr. hosted a show for a short time after Cole's breakthrough.  Belafonte writes about this in that chapter.  I cannot think of another black entertainer who sat in the Tonight Show host seat for a week or more after Mr. Belafonte did in 1968.  For its historical significance, I wish NBC would air his late night interview of Dr. King during Black History Month.

In addition to indie bookstores, Dominic and I love...breakfast.  He took me to breakfast at a diner just a short walk from Christopher's Books.  If you want a delicious way to start the day in San Francisco, have breakfast at Plow on 18th Street.  My tastebuds were singin' and dancin' "I Feel Good" like the late, great James Brown.  Take your morning appetite here:  eatatplow.com.

Two eggs over easy, home-made sausage, potatoes, two little lemon ricotta pancakes and some mighty good coffee.  Oooooh, Daddy!  That's what I like.

OK.  I've given you tips on books, breakfast and a recent speech by Harry Belafonte.  For some movie tips and Oscar talk, check out my podcast coming up this Monday on BobbyRiversShow.com.


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