Review – Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America

Walking into The Screening Room, I had my own opinions about Hugh Hefner. He was the man who founded Playboy Magazine, always wore pyjamas, and starred in that ridiculous E Channel show The Girls Next Door. That’s only one side of this complicated and controversial figure.

Oscar winning director Brigitte Berman returns to the world of Hugh Hefner, but rather then focusing on the magazine or the infamous parties, this is a film about the television shows that Hefner made in the late 1950’s and 60’s called ‘Playboy Penthouse’ and ‘Playboy After Dark’.

This is not a film about the sexual revolutionary that Hefner touted himself to be. It’s not a movie that has Hugh Hefner as the star. He takes a side role in Berman’s picture that allows the nature of his television shows to be front and centre. These television shows allowed Hefner to show his interests and champion causes that were close to his heart.

This is a world that most people forget, and this film, from the moment it starts, aims to educate viewers about the other side of Hugh Hefner. On this show, Hefner leads us in to the party, introducing us to the other famous party-goers. As he visits with his guests we learn about what is happening in America, through their eyes. Unlike the short interviews of other nightly shows, Hefner would let his guests take all the time they needed to share their thoughts on the questions he may have asked them.

Forget all that you know or think you know about Hugh Hefner because Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America will make you see the Playboy founder in a whole new light. From the opening to the close of the movie, the viewers will be caught up in the spirit of equality, the promotion of civil rights, and the fact that Hugh Hefner always challenged the norms of the day, especially when he felt like they were hurting others.

Hefner was a critic of the House Un-American Activities Committee, a critic of the discriminatory laws that many states had which segregated people by the colour of their skin. He was also a critic of the Vietnam War, and the presidency of Richard Nixon. Censorship had no place in a country whose First Amendment was Freedom of Speech.

Director Berman has waded into the world of Hugh Hefner for a second film, and in doing so she has brought a new story to screens. Hugh Hefner stood for many causes which promoted equality and rights for all. He was a man who rallied against censorship in all its forms.

When the band Lambert, Hendricks & Ross were kept away from other shows because it was a mixed-race band, Hefner brought them on his show and talked to them about the music they were playing, and asked insightful questions about the political situation of the day. This was in the late 1950s.

As the timeline of the film changes from the late fifties with Hefner’s first show ‘Playboy Penthouse’ to the late 60s show ‘Playboy After Dark’, Hefner stays the course as an intelligent moderator who is pushing along discourse about equality. Hugh Hefner was interested in bringing people together and doing what he could to end stereotyping and racial discrimination.

Berman could have turned the movie into a lovefest with the present-day commentary by celebrities like Smoky Robinson, Jim Brown, and Joan Baez, but she doesn’t. This is a movie about the Hefner shows, and what they meant at the time. Viewers will leave with a different perspective on Hugh Hefner.

Hugh Hefner is a complicated individual. The man who started Playboy and sexualized women with his centerfolds, is also a man who when many were too afraid to have a mixed-race band play their show, would put them front and centre and then spend time talking to his guests no matter the colour of their skin.

Hugh Hefner’s After Dark- Speaking Out in America is filled with ample clips from the past shows, and interviews with the guests who were there and remember what it was like to be a guest at his party. These evenings at Hefner’s shows were not nights of debauchery but rather moments when Hugh Hefner showed that we can all occupy the same place, get along, and talk like rational human beings.

Brigitte Berman has created a masterful film that will make all viewers think twice about the legacy of Hugh Hefner. It’s been over fifty years since the last ‘Playboy After Dark’ aired and the ideas and values of equality that Hefner was promoting on the show are still relevant today.  

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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