At the start of “The One and Only Dick Gregory,” Chris Rock hails the standup/activist as “one of the greatest political comedians who ever lived” and the following two hours prove the point. The first-rate doc, written and directed by Andre Gaines, is a reminder to anyone familiar with Gregory of the breadth and prescience of his work; to the uninitiated, it will be an eye-opener.
A title card identifies Gregory as “Public citizen #1, comedian, activist, health pioneer.” Aside from looking at his varied career, Gaines’ doc offers a time capsule of the tumultuous years in which he lived (1932-2017), offering a few shocks at how much of the national anguish has remained unchanged.
The film grabs the audience within the first two minutes and doesn’t let go. The opener mixes archival footage and audio clips of Gregory with testimonials from Rock and others, including Harry Belafonte and Wanda Sykes. Then it gives a chronological telling of his remarkable career.
In 1961, Gregory at age 28 was a last-minute substitute at the red-hot Playboy Club in Chicago. When the managers realized the audience would include a lot of Caucasian Southerners, in town for a convention, they gave Gregory the chance to bow out, but he stuck with it and the evening changed his life. He joked and spoke about race relations for three hours and the reaction was so enthusiastic that Jack Paar booked him for “The Tonight Show.”
It was a time when comedy was dominated by Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters and Mike Nichols & Elaine May — all hilarious, but all off-beat humor, with none tackling hot-button topics.
Gregory was also a ground-breaker by playing to integrated audiences. “The Tonight Show” led to a year of lucrative engagements for Gregory and his 1962 trip to Mississippi was another game-changer as he witnessed horrific examples of bigotry. Gregory’s mixture of comedy and politics shifted into high gear as he addressed voter suppression, police harassment and the double standard in America’s legal system, among other topics. It’s incredibly timely.
Gregory was arrested more than 100 times for his activism, besieged with death threats and targeted by the FBI. When his humor about Vietnam proved too touchy for the mainstream, Gregory found receptive fans in his college concerts. Vietnam also spurred a hunger strike that lasted nearly two years, when he dropped nearly 200 pounds.
During the long fast, he gained insights about eating: He worked to raise consciousness about nutrition, lamenting the obesity and high blood pressure in America, particularly among the poor; he promoted kale and the importance of drinking plenty of water. In the early 1970s, these were radical ideas.
Writer-director Gaines, his researchers and editors cover the decades by blending Gregory family photos, home movies and interviews, along with newsreel footage and photographs that give historical context.
“The One and Only Dick Gregory” is relatively long for a docu, but it covers so much territory, it could have been a docu miniseries, as it covers his friendship with activists such as Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and Medgar Evers and, on the flip side, J. Edgar Hoover. The film also shows Gregory encountering a cross-section of the second half of the 20th century, including Hugh Hefner, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Kitty Carlisle and Michael Jackson; movers and shakers like James Baldwin and Gloria Steinem appear fleetingly in photos.
The only criticisms are minor: There’s barely a mention of groundbreaking black comics before Gregory, such as Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx and while every human has foibles, the docu doesn’t spend much time on Gregory’s downside.
But it’s good to hear Gregory’s comedy heirs like Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart recognizing his contributions. Near the end, Chris Rock says admiringly, “He lived a LIFE.” And Gregory is heard in a concert saying the important question to ask oneself is “How much service did you give to your fellow human beings?”
Clearly, he gave a lot. After premiering at the Tribeca Festival in June, “The One and Only Dick Gregory” debuts July 4 on Showtime.