Saturday, March 30, 2019

From the Director of WHITE HEAT

Director Raoul Walsh. From the silent screen era into the age of talking films, he directed some films that definitely earned the word "classic" in description. They're classic in quality., not just because they're well over 50 years old. THE ROARING TWENTIES with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT and HIGH SIERRA, both starring Bogart and Ida Lupino, and WHITE HEAT featuring one of Cagney's best and most quotable gangster performances were all directed by Walsh. KLONDIKE ANNIE starring Mae West, THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE with Cagney dancing with Rita Hayworth, GENTLEMAN JIM starring Errol Flynn and BATTLE CRY starring Tab Hunter were also in his list of directorial credits.  So was BAND OF ANGELS, a 1957 Civil War era race drama/romance starring Clark Gable, Yvonne De Carlo and Sidney Poitier a year before THE DEFIANT ONES, the film that would make him a star. Gorgeous De Carlo stars as a Southern belle who's enjoying white privilege until it's discovered that her real mother was black. Then, the light-skilled belle is booted off the plantation. She's purchased by a dashing gent and moves to his place in New Orleans where he treats her like a lady. The gent (played by Gable, of course) has an educated manservant played by Poitier. In this Walsh film, screen newcomer Poitier displays his early star quality holding his own in scenes opposite screen legend Clark Gable. This big screen, generously budgeted, Technicolor production tries to give you a little GONE WITH THE WIND flavor.
It's interesting to note that Clark Gable shared the screen with two Black actors who went on to make Oscar history. Hattie McDaniel of GONE WITH THE WIND was the first Black person to be nominated for an Oscar -- and she was the first to win. She was voted Best Supporting Actress for the 1939 Civil War epic. Sidney Poitier would be the first Black male to be nominated for an Oscar (Best Actor for 1958's THE DEFIANT ONES) and he'd be the first to win the Oscar (Best Actor for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD).  Walsh's BAND OF ANGELS may come off like some dated cornpone that makes you giggle at times. For instance, one scene shows dozens of plantation slaves gathered on a hill for a sad farewell. All of a sudden, they burst into song and sound just like the Hollywood studio chorus that sang behind Judy Garland in the "Here's What I'm Here For" number in 1954's A STAR IS BORN. That's BAND OF ANGELS.
However, Raoul Walsh's 1933 drama from 20th Century Fox called THE BOWERY does not make you giggle. If you're Black, Asian, Italian, Jewish or female, I'm sure you'll be offended by something you see or hear in the first ten minutes of this 1933 film.  The film stars Wallace Beery, George Raft, Jackie Cooper and Fay Wray. The three male stars get billed above the title. Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper had previously co-starred in the hit 1931 MGM tearjerker, THE CHAMP. They'd co-star again in MGM's 1934 adaptation of TREASURE ISLAND. In THE BOWERY, Beery pronounces words like "perfectly" as "poi-fectly" and acts as a papa bear to Cooper's character. Raft and the burly Beery (on the right in the pic below) play rivals.
The story takes place in the 1890s, called The Gay Nineties, in a section of New York City that was bustling, bawdy and beer-soaked.  THE BOWERY screens Sunday March 31st and Monday at Film Forum in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.  The film is part of a program devoted to Fay Wray and her LOST HORIZON (1937) screenwriter husband, Robert Riskin, called BOB & WRAY: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY. Riskin was not involved with writing THE BOWERY.
On Twitter, the Film Forum notice about THE BOWERY includes a short magazine review from Richard Brody of The New Yorker.  Brody mentions the racism and atavism in the authenticity of Walsh's film. Mr. Brody took sort a high tea service approach to describing the revolting aspects of the film. He serves it to you like its a dainty cucumber sandwich cut in a triangle shape with the crust removed. Let me give you some of the film's details like a bowl of chili served in a New Jersey diner.

I'm sure the Film Forum will show THE BOWERY in its entirety and uncensored -- as it should. The first shot you see in THE BOWERY is the name of a loud, busy saloon in close-up. The name of the saloon is -- "N****r Joe's," printed in big letters.

In the next ten minutes, you'll see a woman get knocked unconscious then dragged out of the saloon. There are two stereotype Jewish tailors competing for a customer on the street.  Jackie Cooper was, like little Shirley Temple, a popular child star. He'd already made Hollywood history by that time as the youngest Oscar nominee, a record he'd hold through the 1970s. Jackie Cooper, at age 9, was a Best Actor Oscar nominee for 1931's family film, SKIPPY.  In the first ten minutes of 1933's THE BOWERY, little Jackie Cooper plays the orphan street kid who uses vulgar terms referring to Chinese residents, Italian kids and he says the name of the saloon. All this business is presented with a light-hearted vibe. Fay Wray stars as the element of refinement that comes into the story and into the lives of the three Bowery males.

In the Fay Wray filmography, THE BOWERY was released the same year as her most famous film, KING KONG. That 1933 action/horror movie, one truly deserving of the word "iconic," still stands as a strong allegory for slavery and racial inequality in America while also touching on the taboo Hollywood topic of interracial romance. THE BOWERY came out six months after KING KONG.

If you go to see THE BOWERY March 31st or April 1st, be prepared. The story opens with blunt, racially offensive language and images.  For more info, click onto:  www.FilmForum.org.

When Raoul Walsh was a silent film actor, he played John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Lincoln, in D.W. Griffith's highly controversial film, 1915's THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Big Love for Lupita Nyong'o

March is Women's History Month. Can we talk about the Hollywood history that Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o is making?  In the area of diversity and inclusion, I've written in previous posts about the frustrating lack of opportunities Hollywood has had for black and brown actresses after they've scored Oscar nominations or won the award and took home that prestigious Hollywood gold. After scoring an Oscar nomination or an Oscar statuette, black actresses did not have a choice of good Hollywood script opportunities like white actresses such as Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett and Amy Adams did. Look at Hollywood history. Multi-talented Rita Moreno won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1961's WEST SIDE STORY and had no significant Hollywood script offers for seven years. Ultimately, she turned to television for steady employment. Cicely Tyson was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for her stunning dramatic work in 1972's SOUNDER. Her strong lead role offers after that nomination came from network TV. That was the gifted actress' only Oscar nomination. Diahann Carroll -- one Oscar nomination and then network TV.  Angela Bassett got one Oscar nomination -- then she went to TV. The TV series EMPIRE had roles for three black actresses who got one Oscar nomination and then went to the small screen to keep getting paid. They were Taraji P. Henson, Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, Gabourey Sidibe, Best Actress Oscar nominee for PRECIOUS and Jennifer Hudson, Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for DREAMGIRLS. Even Broadway Tony winner Viola Davis turned to TV after her first Oscar nomination. That came for DOUBT starring Meryl Streep. Davis scored a hit with the ABC crime series, HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, then did the film adaptation of FENCES. That brought Davis her second Oscar nomination. She won -- Best Supporting Actress for FENCES.  Lupita Nyong'o won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her powerful performance that gave a poetry to the pain of an enslaved young woman named Patsy in 2013's 12 YEARS A SLAVE.
Lupita won her Oscar for work in a film directed by a black filmmaker, Britain's Steve McQueen. The film's Oscar-winning screenplay came from a black writer, Milwaukee's John Ridley.  After 12 YEARS A SLAVE, she had a few lines as a flight attendant in NON-STOP, a Liam Neeson action thriller. Yes, she did land a role in 2015's STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS which should've been called STAR WARS: THE FRANCHISE AWAKENS.  But, that film of hers didn't spark the buzz or historic international box office that her following feature did. A critical and financial success, BLACK PANTHER, got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Lupita Nyong'o performed in one of the most celebrated, influential films of the year -- an Africa-centric action/fantasy co-written and directed by an African-American filmmaker, Ryan Coogler, and featuring a predominantly black cast of lead and supporting actors.
Over the weekend, social media and moviegoers went crazy over US.  Lupita had the lead female role in the new modern-day horror thriller from GET OUT Oscar-winner Jordan Peele. Us raked in $70 million at the box office. According to Entertainment Weekly, it cost $20 million to make. Moviegoers gave it the best opening ever for an original horror film and critics gave it some good reviews.  A few wrote that Lupita's performance as the haunted wife and mother deserves to bring her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.  US -- written and directed by black filmmaker, Jordan Peele.
This is exciting and historic. Lupita Nyong'o followed his Oscar win with two big hits from Black American director/writers. Lupita, Winston Duke (who plays the husband in US) and Jordan Peele were interviewed individually on NBC's TODAY Show. This is a significant fact. US is a Universal Pictures release. TODAY is an NBC/Universal production. However, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON directed by F. Gary Gray, another black filmmaker, was also a Universal Pictures release in 2015. Despite rave reviews and being number one at the box office for three consecutive summer weekends, TODAY turned its back on STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON bookings. No actors nor the director were booked for interviews. It was ignored even though Matt Lauer, then a TODAY Show superstar anchor, had a few appearances in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON as the NBC news anchor. TODAY booked actor interviews and gave promotional airtime to other Universal releases of that 2015 season -- TRAINWRECK, the Amy Schumer comedy, JURASSIC WORLD and the animated feature, MINIONS. Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning box office champ, GET OUT, was a 2017 Universal release. Jordan Peele's film brought him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, a nomination for Best Director and a nomination for Best Picture.

Jim Orr is president of Universal's domestic film distribution.  According to Variety, Orr said "Put simply, Jordan Peele is a genius. He's managed to tap into something that the domestic box office can't get enough of. People can't wait to see what he does next."                                                  

Obviously NBC/Universal's TODAY Show producers have come to realize and acknowledge the box office power and artistry of black filmmakers. Especially when those films are released by the same corporate shop that's attached to the NBC morning news program.

For decades, Hollywood said that black stories with black actors in the lead roles were not marketable and wouldn't do business at the box office. Look at the huge box office business BLACK PANTHER and US did. Look at the casts. Lupita Nyong'o has starred in two Hollywood studio releases that slap the mess out of that old Hollywood attitude like Detective Virgil Tibbs slapping the taste out that old bigot's mouth in the movie IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. Brava, Lupita!

Friday, March 22, 2019

Representation Matters, the TCM Film Festival

1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. A colossal hit with moviegoers and the Academy. It took home 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.
African-American actress Hattie McDaniel made Hollywood history with her Oscar victory. GONE WITH THE WIND screens in the 2019 TCM Film Festival in Hollywood this April. I took a look at the list of films and I have a few notes on Black History and representations of Black people in some of the festival features such as GONE WITH THE WIND...and 1961's A RAISIN IN THE SUN based on the groundbreaking Broadway play written by Lorraine Hansberry. Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee head the cast.
I'll prepare you for a blackface number in one big Technicolor musical, tell you about one of the top men at 20th Century Fox in the 1970s and remind you why the intellectual, regal, strong and complex Black characters we see in the Oscar-winning 2018 box office blockbuster, BLACK PANTHER, are extremely powerful in our Hollywood history.
Take a few minutes to watch my video and have fun at the festival.

For information on the festival, go here:  www.TCM.com/festival.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Cowboy Dreams in THE RIDER

Every week, I turn to the film reviews written by Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times to get his keen, witty and sometimes provocative opinions on new films. His deep affection for a film comes through in his reviews. Such was the case when he reviewed THE RIDER. Justin Chang's article on that contemporary western was practically a love letter. Other notable critics had the similar feelings and added THE RIDER to their "Best Films of 2018" lists. Owen Gleiberman of Variety was one of those critics. Former U.S. President Barack Obama was asked to put together his list of Best Films of 2018. Some films on Mr. Obama's list were BLACK PANTHER, BLACKkKLANSMAN, ROMA, Debra Granik's LEAVE NO TRACE, the documentary WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? and... THE RIDER. Gleiberman, by the way, criticized the Obama list for being too, shall we say, upscale. Did Owen write that same criticism about the lists from critics at The New York Times? No. THE RIDER made several "Best of" lists from top film critics in December of 2018.
I saw it last night.  Oh my Lord, what an exceptional piece of work. It's brutal yet lyrical, unadorned yet complicated and quite profound. I feel it's ultimately a tale simply told about moving on. THE RIDER, focusing on a young cowboy who has survived serious injuries from rodeo circuit riding yet wants to compete again, was directed and written by ChloĆ© Zhao. She was born in Beijing. Zhao left China to attending a boarding school in London and then moved to Los Angeles to finish high school.

The first thing we see in close-up in THE RIDER is the pensive face of bronco rider Brady Blackburn. With the deep scars on his scalp, you'd think he was a war veteran who had come back home. He was once in a coma. He has seizures in one hand. Brady Blackburn is a devoted friend who visits Lane, a buddy and former fellow rodeo circuit cowboy. Lane suffered severe brain damage in a bullriding accident and now lives in a health care facility. He's young, just like Brady. Brady lives with his sweet autistic sister and his critical widower father.

Brady gets a job as somewhat of a horse whisperer. At the same time the young cowboy, who never graduated from high school, is breaking in horses, we see that he has the hunger to return to the rodeo circuit. It's not for glory, for applause or for stardom. It's something that he does and has done, although it's left him severely bruised and near death. He wants to get back on the horse and "Cowboy up" -- be a man, as he's been taught by his dad and the male community. Is his dream a nightmare that he refuses to realize?  How many of us have given our all to a profession or a person over and over even though what we get in return is more disappointing than fulfilling?
First-time actor Brady Jandreau plays the young, unhappy rodeo cowboy. He has a countenance to his face that reminds you of the late Heath Ledger in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Brady Jandreau draws you into to the young man's battered body and wounded heart. A memorable performance in an outstanding film.

Director/writer ChloƩ Zhao based the rodeo cowboy character on Brady Jandreau's real life.
Like Debra Granik's LEAVE NO TRACE, THE RIDER is a film directed by a woman that should have received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. I highly recommend this film.


Monday, March 18, 2019

A Lesson in LARRY CROWNE

Over the weekend, the network TV news reports were full of heartache and pain. We were getting updates on the tragedy and terror that befell New Zealand. Pure evil attacked Muslims as they prepared to pray in Friday services. I hate that hate touched their community.  Saturday evening, I felt that I needed to watch something else to calm me down.  I found a Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts movie playing on one of the cable channels. It was the 2011 movie, LARRY CROWNE. In this light drama/romance, Hanks played a once-successful and well-liked corporate executive whose life changes drastically when he's downsized to the unemployment line. On the road of life, he hit a major pothole. To pull himself out of it and start over, he enrolls in a community college. Julia Roberts played a teacher. Romance ensues.
Tom Hanks is my favorite working actor. When he releases a new film, I usually put that film on my immediate "must-see" list. But, I never did see LARRY CROWNE. Why? Because, just like Larry, I'd been downsized, I couldn't find a new job, my unemployment ran out, I lost my apartment and most of my belongings in it, and I embarked on a long phase of living with different friends in other areas while I tried to start my life over. This happened with LARRY CROWNE opened and I had relocated to job hunt in San Francisco and Sacramento. Of what I saw of the movie over the weekend, I knew just how Larry Crowne felt.
I missed the first hour of the movie.  For the two lead stars, LARRY CROWNE was not a big box office hit like his SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE and YOU'VE GOT MAIL or her PRETTY WOMAN and ERIN BROCKOVICH. It's not a great film, but it is quite entertaining and enjoyable. It made for the perfect Saturday evening emotional pick-me-up that I needed.

I noticed an actor in the group playing community college students. With his teacup saucer-sized expressive eyes, I noticed him working on a car and then happily darting away from under the hood when he sees that a pizza delivery guy has arrived. In a classroom scene, he's the student who has to do a class presentation on British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and, during his presentation in front of the class, he refers to notes that he wrote onto the palm of his hand. It's a small role this young actor had.

If, during a lunch break on the set of LARRY CROWNE, someone went up to that unknown actor and said "Within ten years, you will get a great part on a TV drama series and then, just like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, you will win an Oscar," what do you think he would have said?
That actor is Rami Malek.  Last month, he won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. He played late, gifted, rock star Freddie Mercury. The Queen rock band biopic has made $880 million worldwide.
The lesson? It's true what they say. There are no small parts, only small actors. The other lesson is -- don't give up. Stick with it, commit to the work and do your best. You never know what might happen. The Freddie Mercury role in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY was slated for BORAT star, Sacha Baron Cohen. But he dropped out.

Then a bit player from LARRY CROWNE got the part.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

If You're a Julia Roberts Fan

An indie drama starring Julia Roberts came out last December. It didn't cause much of a ripple with moviegoers but it got praise from some established, reputable film critics. A few days ago, one of my Twitter buddies watched the movie and wrote "Roberts is outstanding..." I just watched the anxious Christmastime family drama called BEN IS BACK. I enthusiastically agree with those critics and with my Twitter buddy, @ XanaduFitness.  I watched it on Amazon Prime. If you're a Julia Roberts fan, you need to see BEN IS BACK. She delivers one of her best and strongest performance since ERIN BROCKOVICH. As in that 2000 film for which Roberts earned a Best Actress Oscar, she plays a devoted mother in BEN IS BACK.  Ben, the oldest of her children, surprises the family with a Christmas Eve visit. Ben is a recovering drug addict.
The movie opens with a tranquil shot of a snow-covered wooded area. We see local village shops. The music score composition is solemn strings that transition into a church hymn. We're inside a church and the camera tilts down to the smiling, beaming face of Julia Roberts watching one of her girls rehearse a Christmas carol in the church choir. This is the oldest, always dependable daughter. As they pull up into the driveway of their big, comfortable, suburban home, they see Ben. Mom is overjoyed. The daughter is cautious and unsmiling. She knows that Ben can be drama. Ben is played extremely well by Lucas Hedges.  He and Julia Roberts connect so well that you fully believe the two actors are mother and son. Has Ben completely let go of his addiction? And what about her? A mother's love, at its utmost, is rather like an addiction. Can Ben's mother let go of him?
Julia Roberts has been a popular movie star since 1990 when PRETTY WOMAN was released. When she gets a really good role and absorbs the character, the charismatic actress gives off an extra energy, an extra heat that you can feel. There's a little something more vivid about her performance. I felt that watching her as ERIN BROCKOVICH. You feel it watching her as the mother in BEN IS BACK. Holly Burns (Roberts) is on her second marriage. The first marriage, to Ben's father, was not happy. Her second husband, strong and wary like Holly's oldest daughter, is played by Courtney B. Vance. This is another solid performance. When Holly sees that Ben has come home on Christmas Eve, she cheerfully says to her husband, "He's got the sparkle back in his eyes." Neal, her husband who is fully aware of Ben's past drug-related messes, tells her bluntly "If he was black, he'd be in jail by now."
Ben is a troubled soul, yet he is not without his charm. We see this in how much his little brother and sister love having him around and how much he loves their company.  I won't tell you the rest of the story.  However, Holly will see for herself how dark her son's drug life was in the suburbs. Mother and son drive into some rough and raw territory, physically and emotionally.  We will see that, although she's a wife and mother in the comfortable suburbs, she can and will go Samuel L. Jackson street tough on yo' ass as she works to keep a protective eye on her son. There's a shopping mall scene in which Holly delivers a verbal punch to someone's throat.  Here's a trailer.
BEN IS BACK, directed and written by Peter Hedges (father of actor Lucas Hedges) is an intense family drama about love, guilt, forgiveness and addiction.  Julia Roberts heads a fine cast and gives a dynamic performance. It's one of her best.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Happy Birthday, Victor Garber

Millions of us have seen and been terrifically entertained by actor Victor Garber.  I bet a lot of you don't realize just how long he's been giving us memorable performances.  Remember the movie version of GODSPELL back in 1973?  He had the lead role in that.  In my New York years, I've seen Victor Garber on Broadway, on television and on the big screen.  I even sat directly behind him once at movie screening on 19th Street in the Flatiron District. I didn't bother him, but his charming personality as he chatted with friends made me smile.  Today, March 16th, is his birthday. Victor Garber is in a prime example of why I preferred working on the entertainment side of show business versus working on TV news programs.  Why? Because some TV news producers who were my bosses proved to be unimaginative. Victor Garber has done stand-out work in hit movies. Some of them are SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, THE FIRST WIVES CLUB, LEGALLY BLONDE and MILK. He had key supporting roles in two films that won the Best Picture Oscar -- ARGO and TITANIC.
Let me tell you how one former boss of mine sank a great possibility regarding TITANIC and Victor Garber.
This 1998 experience also proved that news program producers should stop letting the sales department dictate segments.

I was a regular on a Fox5 morning show called GOOD DAY NEW YORK. I love covering entertainment and doing fine arts interviews.  I got a press request from the publicist of an upcoming off-Broadway show that would be in a limited run. Theater people are always grateful for airtime, especially in they're in off-Broadway productions, because big star-studded Broadway shows are the ones that usually hook TV attention. I saw that Victor Garber was the lead actor in this off-Broadway show and he was available for in-studio interviews.  I contacted the publicist to see if he'd be available on one specific morning. I wanted to pitch him to my boss. I wanted to interview him in-studio for the 8:20am segment and then ask him to stay over for the next half-hour on that specific morning.  Why? Because at about 8:40am that morning, the Oscar nominations would be announced live -- and Victor Garber was in the movie TITANIC.

The buzz was that TITANIC, which many critics predicted would be a huge flop, would rack up as many Oscar nominations as 1950's ALL ABOUT EVE, the classic film that held the Oscar nomination record of 14.

Can you see how my idea would've worked? Have Victor Garber on to talk about his off-Broadway show. Invite him to stay so he could watch the Oscar nominations announced on our TV in the studio and then have him on again live for immediate reaction. By the way, TITANIC did match ALL ABOUT EVE with 14 Oscar nominations.  A box office blockbuster, the film many thought would sink soon sailed off with the Oscar for Best Picture.

My boss nixed the Victor Garber interview idea. The sales department had taken on a new midtown Manhattan gourmet soup shop as a client. So my boss wanted me to do a liveshot from that shop for its grand opening. I guess I don't have to tell you that, at 8 o'clock in the morning, most New Yorkers don't want soujp. Coffee and a bagel, yes. A bowl of corn chower, no.

At 8:20am, I'm on live TV vamping and improvising because no one is buying soup and I've got to make my man-on-the-street segment work. In the next half hour, the Oscar nominations were announced and our show cut live to the Academy for the big Hollywood news. During the nominations, I'm told from the control room that the non-celebrity guest scheduled to be in the studio for that half hour had to cancel.

So they asked me if I could fill for about 5 minutes talking about -- the Oscar nominations.

I, of course, did. But we could've had such a sweet, exclusive live segment with TITANIC star Victor Garber -- if it hadn't been for soup.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Garber.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Harry Belafonte NBC History Remembered

Singer, actor, social activist. For most of my life, Harry Belafonte has not only entertained me. He has enlightened and motivated me. I am quite proud to say that recently, in New York City, I participated on-camera in a documentary being shot about a week of television history Harry Belafonte made on NBC. It's a week I blogged about a few years ago.  That blog post of mine was found and ready by Joan Walsh, a frequent contributor on MSNBC. Joan writes for The Nation and included me in her February 2017 article entitled "49 Years Ago, Harry Belafonte Hosted the Tonight Show -- and It Was Amazing."  Belafonte hosted for the vacationing Johnny Carson. He had a top celebrity guest list that week -- Lena Horne, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Zero Mostel and Aretha Franklin appeared. Another one of his guests was his dear friend, Dr. Martin Luther King. They talked about serious social issues of the day and they even shared a few laughs.
Another guest was Senator Robert F. Kennedy. This was February 1968 and, tragically, both Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy would be dead six months later, each shot and killed by an assassin.

I remember that week of television from my high school years. It was extremely significant to me. When Johnny Carson died in 2005, it irritated me to see a white veteran entertainment reporter on NBC do an obituary segment on Carson and pretty much credit him with booking and conducting the interview of Dr. King.  Wrong. I felt that some of our Black History had been whitewashed, Harry Belafonte was the host. Belafonte booked Dr. King against the wishes of white NBC executives who felt that Dr. King was too radical and his appearance would upset the sponsors. Too radical because he was demanding Civil Rights for African-Americans. Network execs didn't want to rattle sponsors who were opposed to that. Today we honor the memory of Dr. King with a federal holiday.
I am rarely asked to speak about how racial images motivated me to seek the career I did. I'm rarely asked about my youth in South Central L.A. and having grown up in the curfew area during the infamous Watts Riots of the mid 1960s. The local TV news images of Black people in our community during that uprising were, to me, imbalanced. They did not reflect people like my parents, our friends and neighbors on our block, my teachers at school and my classmates. I can't even recall seeing a Black reporter cover the story or TV nor can I recall Black residents being interviewed.  On camera for the documentary, I talked about that plus the social/ and artistic relevance Harry Belafonte has had in my life from that week on NBC to his appearance in Spike Lee's outstanding Oscar-winning film, BLACKkKLANSMAN.
I talked about the hope Sen. Robert F. Kennedy gave us young American when he ran for president. He came into our Black and Mexican-American communities. I talked about being awed by his charisma when I saw him in person in South Central L.A.  I talked my family's grief when he was shot two days after that, and I talked about the irony of being the only African American film critic in a private New York City screening room to see the 2006 movie, BOBBY.  The film, directed and written by Emilio Estevez, focused on various people gathered in the Los Angeles hotel for a night during Bobby Kennedy's campaign that went from celebratory to suddenly tragic. Harry Belafonte had a role in the film.
As one young Black character in the movie talked about how Bobby Kennedy made him feel racially significant, I was seated amongst white film critics because the field of film critics on national TV and, in New York City, local TV was predominantly white male -- and had been for decades.

Joan Walsh is a producer on this documentary project. I am so thankful that she included me in her article in TheNation.com and that she asked me to be on camera in the documentary.  The bigger picture in this look at a week of The TONIGHT Show is, of course, race and equal opportunities in America.  What Belafonte did that week on NBC opened the door for people like Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg and yours truly.

Think about it.  Harry Belafonte was host of the TONIGHT Show for one week in 1968. How many Black artists have hosted that show for a week since then? How many Black artists after Johnny Carson left have been hired as host?  NBC, CBS, ABC … all have late night entertainment shows. How many have had a Black, Latinx or Asian-American host?

Harry Belafonte has been interviewed for the documentary. So was singer Buffy Sainte-Marie. She was one of his guests that week on NBC. The plan is that the completed documentary will play at the Sundance Film Festival.

For those who may never have seen my national talk show host work, work that was influenced by seeing Mr. Belafonte on NBC when I was a kid, here's a reel of my VH1 show from the late 1980s.

I was never, ever offered another national talk show host opportunity after my VH1 years. This, despite getting excellent reviews from The New York Times and other publications. Instead, I worked on news programs through the 1990s to 2000 where white producers either said to me, "I don't know if you have the skills to cover entertainment" or "Do you know anything about films?" One such place was WNBC. I had to constantly prove myself. This, I now know, had more to do with the lack of equal opportunities and was not about my skills.

America in My Youth

I was a little boy when President John F. Kennedy was a living voice and in office. During his presidency, I became a transfer student. I ...