I know what you might be thinking. Is a woman seriously going to recommend a documentary film about Hugh Hefner, the Playboy guy? The simple answer is yes. This is not so all my male friends will sing my praises, or because I want to seem progressive.Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist & Rebel is worth seeing because like most good documentaries it teaches you something. In this instance what you’ll learn about Hefner’s support for black writers, artists and performers; as well as his commitment to civil rights will most assuredly surprise you.
Before I get to the good stuff let me be perfectly clear that this is not a film for children; nor is it one for people who have difficulty in seeing all sides to a story. It’s true that there’s a level of nudity that some might not be comfortable with. But you ought to know what you’re going to get because it’s about Playboy.
This film shows the highs and lows of the Playboy empire. If you can get past the nudity and realize that it’s not the focus, but instead about the man who has come to be known simply as “Hef”, then you might get something out of this.
Academy award-winning filmmaker Brigitte Berman takes us from Hefner’s pre-Playboy days to the present day where Hef’s still rocking it out in his 80s. However, it’s what’s in between that really gives this project weight.
Now I’ll admit the film is split into thirds. One third is about the man himself. The second third is about how he came to create his magazine empire. The last and most interesting third is about his activism against sexual repression, war and segregation.
Did you know that the NAACP gave Hugh Hefner a special award? What about the fact that Alex Haley [Yes, that’s the Roots author] conducted the first interview for the magazine? Haley’s interviews for Playboy included some of the biggest names of the day. His first was with jazz legend Miles Davis. Subsequent interviews included Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and others.
Still not impressed? Well there’s more. Playboy’s Penthouse, which was a show that Hefner did beginning around 1959, got little to no distribution. You might think it’s because there was nudity. Not at all. For Hefner, there were “no race taboos in my life.” Whereas other shows were hesitant to have on black performers, Hefner had a steady stream. These artists included Dizzy Gillespie, the mixed-race group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross as well as Sammy Davis Jr. But they didn’t just perform. They were treated as equals, revered for their talents and sat amongst and conversed with their white counterparts of the day.
Hefner even suffered financial blows that demonstrated his commitment to a “color blind” society. When Playboy Clubs in New Orleans and Miami refused to serve black patrons because they were in the segregated south, Hefner repurchased them so that anyone would be able to enter their doors.
In Chicago, which served as Hefner’s original base he hosted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was brought there by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. In the film Jackson says that the reason he was so attracted to Hefner was because of his “commitment to Dr. King.” What’s more telling is that after King’s assassination Playboy published the last piece that he had ever written. Critics came down on the fact that the final written words of Dr. King would appear in such a magazine. Hefner who has scrapbooks galore reads from one article that says, “There is the outrageous incongruity of it all, of course, that we should be sitting there in the Hefner pad listening to Martin Luther King’s dream.” Without missing a beat, Hefner responds to what he’s just read by saying, “Yes, well people don’t recognize or realize the extent to which it was part of my dream too.”
And isn’t that the point, that at the end of the day what we all want is to be judged for the full extent of our lives and not just parts of them? If you agree then you’ll give this movie a chance and see that there is more to Hugh Hefner than meets the eye.