“It happened in quite an unusual way. The NAACP heard about the film, and that it qualified, so they contacted to me and asked me if it could be submitted…and I submitted it.” Academy Award-winning Canadian director Brigitte Berman continues her story, “Later, they wanted to hold a screening of the film in December and I said ‘sure,’ and sent them the print. Then, to my great surprise, on January 12 I found out that it was nominated! I was thrilled,” said Berman, who had recently arrived in Los Angeles from Toronto to attend the NAACP Image Award nominees’ luncheon.
The film that Berman is speaking about is her internationally acclaimed documentary “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel,” (Metaphor Films, 2010), which was nominated in the Outstanding Documentary (Theatrical or Television) category for the 42nd NAACP Image Awards. The awards show will air live on Fox TV on March 4 at 8 (7 Central).
Singled out for numerous accolades, “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” has garnered rave reviews and an impressive sequence of Official Selection designations at a number of major international film festivals, including the Toronto, Zurich, Melbourne and Sao Paolo festivals.
The widely discussed documentary focuses on Hefner’s “other side,” that of his social activism and insightful influence on American society, including his groundbreaking work in the civil rights arena. Through archival footage, Berman’s film reveals Hefner doing his part in the thick of the struggle for equality and justice with such distinguished human rights advocates as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Alex Haley, Jim Brown and Dick Gregory.
Commenting on Hefner, the activist/humanitarian man behind the iconic playboy image, Berman said, “What is as big and as important and as strong in his own psyche is the rebel, the activist–the person who fights for what he believes in, and who, when he sees something is wrong, does something about it.” Berman pointed out that Hefner used a variety of ways to combat these wrongs, including through his legal team, his TV show and interviews in Playboy magazine, as well as getting personally involved.
“He really believed in a world of freedom where people could speak and say what they want and not be censored, where people were not prejudiced against because of their color or because of something they did. He just believed in human rights and didn’t just give lip service to that, but actually put money where his mouth is,” disclosed Berman, who observed that Hefner lived by the philosophy that “people are people. It didn’t matter whether they were Black or white. The color of their skin was irrelevant. He looked at the inside of them and who they were, and he didn’t just say it, but did it.”
Among various examples Berman cited was Alex Haley, the African-American historian and author. “Alex Haley began his career at Playboy as chief interviewer for the magazine,” she pointed out. “His groundbreaking interviews with Nazi leader Lincoln Rockwell and human rights activist Malcolm X eventually led to him writing ‘Roots,’ one of the most important, groundbreaking books about African-American history. The book was first serialized in Playboy.” One very special moment depicted in the film’s archival footage portrays Hefner and Haley reflecting upon their working relationship.”
The documentary also spotlights the last article written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before his death. Edited by his widow, Coretta Scott King, this significant literary work was published in Playboy. Berman’s film also exposes how Hefner’s TV shows and Playboy Clubs helped to break down the color barriers for several legendary Black performers in the 1950s and 1960s, amongst them Jim Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Dizzy Gillespie, Dick Gregory, Josh White and Joe Williams.
“Many of these brilliant artists were forced to use service entrances for ‘colored’ people, and forbidden from performing and fraternizing with whites both onstage and off,” said Berman. However, through Hefner’s TV series, “Black performers and mixed race groups such as the Gateway Singers and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross were featured on his show along with popular white entertainers like Tony Bennett and Lenny Bruce.”
Hefner’s Playboy Club in Chicago also served as a conduit for integration. “It was the first white club to give comedian Dick Gregory a forum, to perform to mixed black and white audiences,” according to Berman. “Dick Gregory has never forgotten that.” She also divulged: “Jim Brown wanted Hefner to receive the NAACP Award a long time ago, because of the things he has done for the Black community.” Now, several decades later, Berman’s celebrated film brings all of this to the forefront.
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Berman was raised by her grandmother before joining her mother in Canada at the age of 12. “It wasn’t an easy transition at all, coming to Canada,” Berman explained. “When I first came–I was very, very German, and I hadn’t lived with my mother for many, many years, and then I came to live with my mother and my new stepfather. My stepfather was Jewish and I was German, and I went to a Jewish school where being German in those days was not a great thing. So I had to fight and fight to prove myself.” Fortunately for Berman her athletic talent brought her through this challenging spell.
“I proved myself and I’ve continued to try and prove myself all my life. In my films, I’m always trying in some way to focus on bringing out the story of the underdog,” shared Berman, whose film and TV credits as a director, producer and writer stretch over 20 years, including a 10-year tenure with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producing award-winning documentaries. “Not that Hef is an underdog at all,’ Berman added quickly, “but in the other documentaries I have done, I have done that with various issues.” Among her film credits are the Bronze Hugo Award-winning “Bix: Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet,” the dramatic feature “The Circle Game” and the Academy Award-winning documentary feature “Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got.”
Focusing on the NAACP Award nomination, Berman declared: “To be nominated is a great honor! I’ve been fortunate to have received many prestigious awards over the years, but this recognition by the NAACP of the documentary’s strong focus on civil rights and social justice, is most gratifying.” This nomination is well deserved for this great, sensitive and artistic lady, especially during Women’s History Month.
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