It’s very early to be talking about documentary contenders for next year’s Emmys, but The One and Only Dick Gregory certainly should be part of the conversation.
The film written and directed by Andre Gaines at last gives the late Gregory his rightful due—as one of the most significant figures in the history of comedy, a hero in the Civil Rights Movement and a pioneer in nutrition, health and wellness. It’s hard to separate each of the areas where Gregory made an impact, because they all sprang from a common impulse, to redeem America from its savage racism and to help his fellow human beings.
“It was within the first five minutes of meeting him that I was confident and assured in my belief that I needed to tell his story myself,” Gaines tells Deadline. “And that belief and confidence and the enthusiasm for it just built continuously over time. It didn’t wane… He was such a profound mentor and teacher and leader in the Black community, in our community.”
The One and Only Dick Gregory premiered at the Tribeca Festival in June, then made its debut on Showtime on Independence Day—after the eligibility window for this year’s Emmys. As the film recounts, Gregory launched his standup career in the late 1950s, with a performance style radically different from the minstrelsy that came before it. He sat on a stool, delivered his material with supreme patience and seemed not so much eager to entertain people as to challenge them—particularly over attitudes around race.
“Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here,’” he told an audience in 1961. “I said, ‘That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’”
“Dick Gregory the comedian—knowing that he was dealing with very difficult subject matter—I don’t think he found it funny, quite honestly,” observes Christian Gregory, one of Dick’s sons and an executive producer of the documentary. “My dad was always very purposeful… He always described himself as an agitator.”
Gregory’s comedy breakthrough came during a performance before a crowd of mostly white Southerners at the Playboy Club in Chicago, during which he declined to make his remarks “safe” for that potentially antagonistic audience. The night turned into a triumph and the resulting nationwide publicity earned Gregory an appearance on the Jack Paar show. After Paar, Gregory’s income instantly leapt from $250 a week to $5,000 a night, and within a short time he had become a wealthy man.
Almost immediately he sacrificed wealth, fame and security to plunge himself into the Civil Rights Movement, working closely with Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and other leaders engaged in non-violent resistance to segregation and systemic racism.
“He could have sent a check,” his widow Lillian says in the film. “Instead he went to Mississippi and put his life on the line.”
“He subordinated his role as an entertainer substantially behind the role of his life as an activist,” affirms Gaines. “He was such a gifted entertainer, but he just did not ever want to consider that his terminus. He never wanted to identify at the end of the day, if he left this Earth, just being known as a comedian. He would have felt that he didn’t do what it is he came to do.”
At the invitation of Evers, who became a very close friend, Gregory spoke at voter registration rallies in Mississippi. He likely would have been at Evers’ side the night Evers was shot dead in June 1963, had not the unexpected death of Gregory’s baby son called him to Chicago. Despite the risks, Gregory continued his activism, was arrested more than 100 times, served months in jail and was attacked with a baseball bat by the notorious segregationist lawman Bull Connor in Birmingham, Alabama.
“[Gregory] would say that entertainers don’t change the world, athletes don’t change the world,” comments Gaines, “it’s really activists that change the world, that are willing to sacrifice themselves, that are willing to put their necks out on the line.”
Like MLK, Gregory’s sense of justice compelled him to oppose the Vietnam War. He went on a 14-month long fast to protest the war, during which he lost almost two-thirds of his body weight. The experience of fasting led him to explore nutrition and health and he became a champion of changing the American diet.
“At a time,” says Christian Gregory, “when very few people were talking amongst ourselves or to the Black community about health, wellness, the importance of drinking adequate amounts of clean water, nutrition, reducing white flour, white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup—all these things that are a lot more common knowledge now—Dick Gregory was really the tip of the spear for that and especially for the Black community.”
Gregory published books on nutrition, and (accurately) predicted an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure if Americans didn’t change course. And he developed the popular Bahamian Diet supplement, which was marketed in grassroots fashion largely through Black-owned businesses like barbershops.
Selling the Bahamian Diet allowed many of these small business owners to build wealth, something Gregory could have done for himself had he focused only on the bottom line and not on the general good. A major company offered him tens of millions of dollars to commercially exploit the Bahamian Diet, but he ultimately turned them down.
“The reason that deal fell through is my dad wasn’t willing to turn his back on the tens of thousands of Black multi-level distributors who had become entrepreneurs and were having additional revenue streams,” says Christian. “I tell people often, ‘Dick Gregory walked away from more money than what most people would make in 10 lifetimes…’ Dick Gregory as CEO was like Robin Hood as CEO—he’d wake up every morning looking for ways to steal from himself.”
Christian Gregory says his father’s most enduring mark ultimately will be “in the health, wellness, diet and lifestyle space. There’s no question about it… This wasn’t something that someone created and put his face on and licensed it for him. This was something that Dick Gregory, my mom and the Gregory family were the research and development team.”
“It was super popular,” adds Gaines of the Bahamian Diet. “That’s how I knew Dick Gregory. I didn’t know him as a comedian, I knew him as a drink. People would say, ‘Go get me some Dick Gregory.’”
Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Harry Belafonte, Wanda Sykes and W. Kamau Bell are among the luminaries who pay tribute to Gregory in the film. So do Kevin Hart and Lena Waithe, who are among the film’s executive producers. They understand Gregory’s importance as a talent, activist, and health advocate even if the general public seemed to lose sight of him after Gregory left the performing spotlight behind. The lack of appreciation for Gregory’s contributions posed a challenge to get the documentary off the ground, Gaines concedes.
“As progress was being made on the project,” Gaines recalls, “it was a bit of an education that we had to provide to some people as to why he’s such a large and important figure in American history.”
The One and Only Dick Gregory will screen August 12 at the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival, with Gaines set to participate in a Q&A afterwards moderated by Marc Morial, head of the National Urban League.
Gregory died in 2017 at the age of 84, his life undoubtedly shortened by the long fasts he undertook and the cross-country runs he made to bring attention to inequity and injustice. The film makes clear—through side-by-side footage of “race riots” in Detroit and Newark in 1967 and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and Minneapolis last year after the killing of George Floyd—that what Gregory fought for remains an unfulfilled promise.
“The shots of Minneapolis and the shots of Newark look almost identical,” Gaines notes, adding that Gregory’s words “from 1963 and beyond were just as relevant and as prescient as the words that he spoke to me in a studio in Hollywood when we were filming him… We were able to take those words and today’s images, put them together and they feel present, they feel current, they feel relevant, they feel now. Because he was fighting for the same things at the beginning of his life that he was fighting for at the end of his life.”
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