When Lena Waithe shared her favorite EBONY covers, she included one of legendary comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, his wife and then family of eight kids with the explosive coverline “My Answer to Genocide.” Gregory had an answer to a lot of what Black people faced and that’s explored extensively in the excellent documentary which Waithe executive produces, The One and Only Dick Gregory, airing now on Showtime.
Written, directed, and produced by relative newcomer Andre Gaines, with Gregory’s son Christian Gregory, serving as executive producer and interviewee, the documentary is a portrait of the activist and funnyman that peels back his many layers. Told largely through his actual voice, using amazing archival footage, this film is bigger than the man.
The main drivers of the narrative are his love for Black folks, and his activism in civil rights as well as in health and wellness as seen through his public fasting and Bahamian Diet. The film also honors his wife and righthand, Lillian, who is a steady presence throughout. The toll his advocacy took on both him and his family is apparent, but so are the positive outcomes demonstrated in the presence of Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart and others who are some of the biggest names in comedy.
Gaines started the film in 2015, with Gregory's blessing and participation, two years prior to the comedian's passing on August 17, 2017. “If my dad was still here, he would be so incredibly proud of this finished film,” beams Christian. “It moves like Dick Gregory. You laugh, you cry at a blistering pace. A five-minute conversation with Dick Gregory feels like a 10-hour conversation. The film keeps that same cadence alive.”
“Part of my goal, as a filmmaker, was to allow Dick Gregory to tell his own story,” Gaines shares. “I really want this to be an archival film because here's a man who has been part of every major American event since basically 1959 up until the time of his death in 2017. And he never restricted anyone from ever filming him, photographing and talking to him, interviewing him, any of those types of things. He was an open book. He never had bodyguards, always had a listed and available phone number. So there was a lot of access to Dick Gregory. And, as a result of that, I felt that it was necessary to allow him to be the star of his own film, for him to tell his own story.”
Some of the stories like his brotherhood with civil rights martyr and Mississippi native Medgar Evers haven’t been fully explored until now. Evers' widow and one-time NAACP leader Myrlie Evers-Williams even speaks on it for the film. It’s a relationship that profoundly impacted his life, Christian says. "I think part of my dad's fearlessness, not recklessness, because it's a fine line, is that he did have a bit of survivor's remorse. Because the way that the scheduling was planned, he was going to be shoulder to shoulder with Medgar for quite some time if it wasn't for the death of my brother, Richard Jr. Although the two weren't right next to each other chronologically, it just sent my dad on a different kind of path going out and speaking about losing his son. And before he circled back, Medgar Evers was tragically assassinated. And that always weighed on him.”
Also, a lot of people don’t think of Gregory as a health and wellness pioneer, but he was. It’s an aspect of Gregory’s many advised Gaines to delete. However because it is such an important component of Gregory’s life, Gaines stuck to his guns. “By being this health pioneer, so many people came together to try to get well,” Gaines says. “He tried to fix the lives of people from the inside out. He tried to fix our community through food, through nutrition.”
That goodwill impacted Gaines’s own family. Both his grandmother and mother used Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ with Mother Nature, originally published in 1973. “He was the lone wolf out there talking things that were foreign to most folks at that time,” Gaines adds. “He was a health [fanatic.] He went from being a health nut to everyone else catching up to where he was. And, we can all speak to this. As Black people we know we can do better and now we see ourselves doing better—and that's a real blessing. Just like generational wealth, generational health gets paid forward.”
Gaines wishes something else goes forward. “I also hope that there are more stories about our heroes that we take ownership of. Far too often folks in the Black community and the folks in Black Hollywood are not the ones responsible for telling our own stories. And I didn't want this one to get away from us.”
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies, available now.