In conversation with: Brigitte Berman, director of Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America

The Kingston Canadian Film Festival is back for another year. As I settled in for my Friday screening of Brigitte Berman’s film Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America I thought I knew all that I needed to know about Hugh Hefner and his contribution to society.

Hugh Hefner is an icon of the 20th Century and a divisive figure with many critics who dislike the playboy lifestyle that he espoused. No matter how you look at the impact Playboy Magazine had, there is controversy. Hugh Hefner was adamant about the right to free speech, and for many, that protection of free speech would seem to be in line with the publisher of a magazine with naked women in it. As I learned throughout the screening, Hugh Hefner has many shades of gray to his story.

Berman’s film, Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America focuses not on the man Hugh Hefner, but the political discourse and the varied guests Hefner had on his television shows Playboy Penthouse in the late 1950’s and Playboy After Dark in the 1960’s. His shows were a who’s who of political activists, singers, actors, comedians, and those that were discriminated against.

“The idea for the film came from my late husband, Victor Solnicki. When we toured around with our other Hefner film, people were blown away and would ask questions about these shows. He was struck by that and said we really should see if we can get Hefner to allow us to make this film. I approached Hefner and gave him a treatment. He always wants to see what you are planning, where it is going, and what your reasoning for it is.  He loved the treatment. Then it was just a matter of a lot of research and watching all the shows,” Berman commented. To Brigitte and her husband Victor, they were not making a companion piece to their 2009 film.

“My husband was a very political man, and he was immediately struck by the fact that we were still in the same era as we were then, so we decided to give it as strong a political edge as we could. It’s a film about his shows, about the people on the shows, and the ideas on the shows.”

As you watch countless clips from Hefner’s shows play in the film, the audience is confronted with the idea that the man who promoted and sold sex through his magazines is an intelligent, astute man who was up-to-date on the social issues of the time.

Whether it was Sammy Davis Jr, Jim Brown, or Joan Baez, Brigitte Berman saw this version of Hugh Hefner as a man who wasn’t paying lip service to his guests. “This wasn’t just a commercial blip. He knew those issues, he knew where people stood on these issues and engaged with them. He believed in what they were saying,” Berman stated.

Berman goes on to say, “I think he is a very controversial figure, and he will always be a controversial figure,” but she does like the man behind the personality. “I like him because what you see is what you get. We are all people of many sides. We have our shades of grey. He’s just a very complex, interesting man.”

In researching for her movies, Berman had a chance to visit the famous Playboy mansion. Through her visits she was privy to the many movie nights that Hefner hosted each week, where friends like Ray Anthony, and not Playboy bunnies, would be in attendance. Films, old and new. would be shown and discussion about the film would be led by Hefner afterwards. “He knew everything about movies,” said Berman.  

What Berman hopes we take away from the film and the story of Hugh Hefner is that, “he’s complex and you can’t just immediately judge by what you see. Yes, he’s Mr. Playboy but then there is so much more. We can’t just only focus on Playboy, we must look at the other sides of complex individuals with open eyes and not negativity.”

Berman’s hope for the film was to not show a parade of friends and fans talking about how great Hugh Hefner was. As Berman said, “I wanted the movie to be about the time and the politics, and not about how the people feel about Hefner.”

Throughout the film we see a Hugh Hefner that embraced artists and individuals who were blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, like Pete Seger, African-American artists like Sammy Davis Jr, who could perform on the big stages around the country but wasn’t allowed to stay at the hotel he performed at because of the colour of his skin.

Hefner used his clout and televisions shows to give artist and activist Joan Baez a platform to speak her mind about her anti-war feelings of the Vietnam War. When other shows would have steered clear from talking about the issues of the ghetto in urban cities and what needed to be done to address poverty for inner city African-Americans, Hefner would discuss these issues at length with his guests in an environment that showed black and white people together in unison.

Bringing the film to the Kingston Canadian Film Festival was important to Berman because, “Kingston was an environment I felt comfortable in. Kingston is very special to me. I love the lake and the limestone buildings, I love the small town and the big town university. I chose Kingston deliberately and Queen’s has given me a lot, it was the beginning of my whole career. Kingston is a major important place for me.”

Hugh Hefner advocated for an open and peaceful society, where everyone got along and accepted you for who you were, and a place where it didn’t matter the colour of your skin or your political beliefs, everyone was welcome. Brigitte Berman’s film Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America will open your eyes and give a more defined picture to the man who lived the playboy lifestyle, and why we should always get to know the whole person before making a judgement about their actions.

Bill Gowsell

Bill has been an elementary school teacher for the last 12 years. His passion for writing includes a wide variety of interests, from history, food, pop culture, and anything to do with Disney. Recently he published his second book, Extra Magic Days: Thirty Years of Walt Disney World Vacations. Learn more about Bill...

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