DOCUMENTARY "The One and Only Dick Gregory"
WHEN|WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime
WHAT IT'S ABOUT This portrait of the comic, who died in 2017 at the age of 84, is directed by Andre Gaines, with commentary from Harry Belafonte, W. Kamau Bell, Medgar Evers’ wife Dr. Myrlie Evers-Williams, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes, Kevin Hart and Lena Waithe (the latter two are executive producers). Gregory's voice is heard throughout, from tapes provided by Robert Lipsyte, the veteran sports journalist who co-authored his 1964 memoir.
MY SAY The problem with a long public life — Gregory's stretched six decades — is that we tend to remember only its final chapters. In his case, these include an ill-fated diet formula, cameos in some lamentable '90s movies ("The Hot Chick"), and his enthusiasm for conspiracy theories. There does remain the image of the amiable eccentric — a beaming face framed by a nimbus of white hair — but even that's fading fast. So, who was Dick Gregory and why should we still care? "The One and Only" explains why:
He was the top comic in the U.S. in the early '60s, until forsaking fortune if not fame for the Civil Rights struggle. Shot, beaten and jailed (often), he was so closely allied with Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers that he almost certainly would have been killed too the night of June 12, 1963 outside Evers' Jackson, Miss. home. (Gregory had returned to his home in Chicago because his infant son had just died of SIDS.) He later became such an effective Vietnam anti-war protester that the FBI sought ways to "neutralize" him, which sounds as ominous as it probably was.
Gregory had a talent for theatrics that drew attention to his many causes, but a gift bordering on genius for the quip that clarified them. Asked why he finally stopped smoking five packs a day, he blamed the per-pack federal excise tax, then added, "I'll not get cancer and buy napalm at the same time."
To protest world hunger, he ran across the country — 50 miles a day — then got Muhammad Ali to jog with him when media attention flagged. Another time, during an anti-war 40-day fast, he came up with the idea for his next act, saving Black America from the ravages of its diet. Long Islanders will recall his compassionate effort to save Hempstead native Walter Hudson, who weighed 1,200 pounds before taking the Gregory diet. When Hudson later refused to leave his house, Gregory conceded defeat. It might have been the only time in his life he ever did.
Over these years, his wife Lillian bore him 11 children. She's interviewed here in an empty room in the Plymouth, Mass. country home where they once lived before the bank foreclosed on the place. A placid lake shimmers beyond a large window. It's a shrewd bit of stagecraft because there was nothing placid about Gregory.
But what this portrait does so well is reorient our gaze away from the bustle of this packed, unplacid life back to the early chapters. They're the ones we should really remember — profiles in courage, about a comic who used comedy to make people listen, and change the world in the bargain.
BOTTOM LINE Amazing life gets its due