the sit-in: harry belafonte hosts the tonight show

‘The Sit-In' Details the Historic Week Harry Belafonte Hosted ‘The Tonight Show'

The Peacock original documentary unveils never-before-seen footage from this almost-forgotten moment in American history.

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In 1968, the U.S. was in turmoil. There were riots across the country, the Vietnam War had been raging for 7 years, and the country was going through a massive civil rights movement. It was during this time, Johnny Carson asked his friend Harry Belafonte to host “The Tonight Show” for one week.

“The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show” tells the story of how this almost-forgotten moment in American history came to be. Belafonte is a legendary entertainer known for bringing his signature Jamaican-American music to the mainstream with songs like “Jump In The Line (Shake, Senora!) and the “Banana Boat Song.” He is also a passionate activist who used his platform to make history.

Director Yoruba Richen says most people know Belafante is an activist, but may not know the depths of his activism and about the close friendship he had with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

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Guest host Harry Belafonte, right, sits in for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” with, from left, Ed McMahon and guests Nipsey Russell, Leon Bibb, Paul Newman and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a February 1968 episode. (Peacock)

“Learning and understanding his deep friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was really beautiful to me,” Richen says. “Also he was a conduit between the more radical elements of the civil rights movement. The younger more radical folks like Stokely Carmichael and others who were frustrated with the traditional, the slow pace of the civil rights movement.”

Belafonte brought huge stars to “The Tonight Show” couch. Aretha Franklin, Sidney Poitier, Nipsey Russell, Paul Newman, Bobby Kennedy and many more. “The Sit-In” unveils never-before-seen footage of this historic week, much of which was lost to history because the shows were taped over to save space in the vault. Richen says this presented a challenge when making the film, but they were able to piece together as much as they could from other historical accounts of the week.

“We knew that we could get archival footage of the guests. We knew that was going to be a big part of it. We were also able to interview those who are still with us, who were on that week. And about halfway through the film we found these audio tapes of the week so that added another layer of being able to tell this story.”

“The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show” is streaming now on Peacock.

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