“Segregation isn’t all bad. Have you ever heard of a wreck where the people on the back of the bus got hurt?” — Dick Gregory, 1961.
If Dick Gregory had stayed in the standup comedy lane throughout his career and lived a quiet life off-camera and off-screen, his work would be worthy of a documentary due to his groundbreaking and socially relevant material.
If Dick Gregory had never told a joke in his life and was known strictly as a civil rights, anti-war, anti-poverty activist who was a close associate of Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers and inspired thousands — that’s a hell of a legacy.
If Dick Gregory were known solely for his runs across the country before anyone had ever heard of Forrest Gump and his efforts to improve Americans’ health (especially in the impoverished areas) through better eating habits and lifestyle choices, he would be remembered as a pioneer in the field, ahead of his time.
As we see in the rock-solid, thorough Showtime documentary “The One and Only Dick Gregory,” he lived up to that title with all of the aforementioned accomplishments — and we haven’t yet talked about his complicated family life, his influence on next-generation comics from Dave Chapelle to Chris Rock to Kevin Hart, his rags-to-riches-to-rags-once-again financial rollercoaster ride and his later years as an aging but roaring lion who could still hold a room in the palm of his hand but was prone to going off on conspiracy-theory rants.
Writer-director Andre Gaines delivers a treasure trove of archival footage from nightclub appearances, TV guest shots and interviews and political rallies; audio interviews with Gregory at various stages of his career; present-day interviews with Gregory’s widow Lillian and two of his grown children, Christian and Ayanna; and insights and memories from the aforementioned comedians, among others.
“The One and Only Dick Gregory” is a comprehensive biography of a mercurial, brilliant and wildly funny artist-activist.
But it also serves as a valuable time capsule of the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s and a reminder of how the more things change, the more they stay the same. (Split-screen film and video of rioting and fires and looting and violent clashes in 1968 and in 2020 are eerily, stunningly similar.)
Gregory was born and raised in St. Louis, but, after a time at Southern Illinois University (where he was a track and field star) and a stint in the Army, he moved to Chicago circa 1960 to pursue a full-time career as a standup comedian.
In 1961, Hugh Hefner booked Gregory to perform for one night, for $50, at the Playboy Club in Chicago without knowing the room had been rented by a delegation of frozen-food conventioneers from the South. We hear an audio recording from that night, with Gregory addressing the white elephant(s) in the room: “You got a little snow down there in Georgia, first time in a hundred years. Can you imagine what it’s like being my color in all-white Georgia? I had a cousin damn near got killed during that first storm. He thought he was leaning up against a snowbank and it turned out to be a Ku Klux Klan rally.”
The room roars with laughter. Gregory killed.
He became an overnight sensation, with a sensational write-up in Time magazine and an appearance on “The Tonight Show” in which he became the first Black comic to join host Jack Paar for a sitdown conversation after his routine.
By the early 1960s, Dick Gregory was the highest-paid comic in America, regularly appearing on TV shows and in sold-out venues, working his cigarette like a baton as he slayed audiences with his sharp, observational, socially relevant humor.
All the while, Gregory became increasingly political, joining Dr. King and the other prominent civil rights leaders of the time at marches and rallies and strategy sessions.
When Gregory began to speak out against the Vietnam War, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover made him a target.
Gregory’s grown children speak with great love for their father but note he was almost never around when they were growing up. (If you’re out there trying to save the world, you don’t spend many weekends at home.)
The documentary takes us through Gregory’s remarkable forays into other venues and disciplines, including his run from New York to Los Angeles fueled only by water and a plant-based nutrient powder; the fasting protests that nearly cost him his life; and his creation of the “Bahamian Diet” craze of the 1980s.
At times, Gregory was Rolls-Royce rich. Other times, he was dead broke and lost his house and couldn’t even afford insurance.
“The One and Only Dick Gregory” concludes with a chronicle of Gregory’s return to the public arena in the 2000s and 2010s, when he could sometimes be irascible and unreliable (in his last years, he battled dementia) but still had that fire in his eyes and still had a lot to say.
Dick Gregory died in 2017, leaving a lasting and impressive footprint on this world.