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March 30, 2019 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
Thoughts of Hugh Hefner typically conjure scarlet smoking jackets and the Playboy centerfolds he infused into popular culture. Hefner’s legacy, though, runs much deeper—a legacy that still sheds light on the current fractured state of civil rights and free speech in America.
“Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America” explores the lesser known—or at least less remembered—side of the publishing giant. The film from Academy Award-winning director Brigitte Berman, in fact, isn’t so much about Hefner the man but rather his groundbreaking TV shows and the progressive ideas he promoted on those shows.
Hefner’s “Playboy Penthouse” and “Playboy After Dark” programs took great risks to give a voice to black artists and other activists, decades even before MTV was pressured to play black artists. Berman says activists like Cleveland Browns legend Jim Brown, who is featured in the film, state that to be black in America today can still be a very debilitating experience despite civil rights breakthroughs.
“The challenges today run alarmingly parallel to the challenges Hefner was addressing in the late ’50s and ’60s and civil rights issues are still problematic,” Berman says. “What the film points out is that we need to be ever vigilant and not take any gains for granted, for fear of slippage back to where you do not want to be. And we still have a long way to go to reach full equality of opportunity, and equality of respect.”
The guest list on Hefner’s programs is nothing short of remarkable: Smokey Robinson, Pete Seeger, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Garcia, Taj Mahal, Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr., Moms Mabley, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, and Linda Ronstadt, among others.
Berman says Hefner’s interview with folk legend Joan Baez is particularly amazing for that time, because both Baez and Hefner speak out at great length against the Vietnam War. Also,
Berman says, Smokey Robinson passionately talks about what it was like for black people during the ’60s—even for a successful artist like himself.
This isn’t Berman’s first film exploring Hefner’s legacy. In 2010, she and her late husband, producer Victor Solnicki, released “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel.” Berman says they noticed that the audiences, and especially young people, were intrigued by the few clips of Hefner’s early TV shows and they wanted to see more.
It was Solnicki’s idea to approach Hefner and ask whether he might provide access to these long-ago shows. Hefner agreed. Sadly, neither Hefner or Solnicki are here to see the finished product.
“Wherever our film is shown, it entertains, it makes people think, and it opens their eyes,” Berman says. “So yes, our film is encouraging audiences to see Mr. Hefner in a fuller perspective instead of a one-dimensional presentation. The film provides insight into the human condition and all its complexities.”
— Timothy Magaw
PHOTO: From left, Leon Kennedy, Brigitte Berman, Smokey Robinson, and Victor Solnicki. This is Toronto-based Brigitte Berman’s second documentary on Hugh Hefner. Her 1985 doc, on clarinetist and band leader Artie Shaw, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
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