In the pop culture sphere, it’s been a while since Harry Belafonte has made a mark musically or on the big screen. His last album came out more than two decades ago, 1988’s Paradise in Gazankulu while his last film role was a small appearance in Emilio Estevez‘s “Bobby” a few years back. But don’t think that at 84 years old, Belafonte is merely basking in the rewards of his undeniable entertainment legacy in his twilight years. A tireless activist, “Sing Your Song” is straightforward, and fascinating look at his career at the front of the civil rights movment, striving to end hunger in Ethiopia, looking to find ways to curb inner city violence all within his journey as a musician and actor. Though produced by his daughter Gina Belafonte, the film directed by Susanne Rostock is a balanced, honest look at the life of a man whose success only fueled his work for humanist causes even more.
Starting right at the beginning of Harry Belafonte’s career, we’re first introduced to the young artist as he begins as a fledgling but non-descript jazz singer. However, two people in particular prove to be transformative figures in Belafonte’s approach to his career. The first is legendary blues artist Huddie Ledbetter, who he sees in concert, and is immediately struck by the direct and honest emotion of his music. The other is Paul Robeson, whose interpretations of folks songs and spirituals inspired Belafonte to look at his own roots. The result? Ditching the jazz route he had been taken, the singer re-emerged with variations on the songs he grew up listening to in Jamaica, becoming “The King of Calypso” and introducing North America and eventually the world, to the sounds and sensibilities of the music of the West Indies.
As his star continued to rise, Hollywood came calling, and musician added the title of “Actor” to his resume appearing most notably in Otto Preminger‘s “Carmen,” Robert Wise‘s heist flick “Odds Against Tomorrow” and the tropical drama “Island In The Sun.” He also made waves on the stage, earning a Tony award for his performance in “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac” but in all three mediums, he would confront racism head on. As an actor, he found the industry uneasy on making movies about African-American life, as they often courted controversy. MGM demanded a rewrite of the apocalyptic “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” as the suggestion that a black man and white woman winding up together was too dicey a proposition. And the chaste interracial relationship between Belafonte and Joan Fontaine in “Island In The Sun” caused the film to be rejected by Southern theater owners, which in turn created a minor hit for everyone else curious to see what they objected to. Meanwhile, touring on the stage brought him to face to face with the humiliation of segregation when hitting cities below the Mason-Dixon line and when he went to Las Vegas to headline the Thunderbird? He wasn’t allowed to enter the front door, eat at the restaurant or even sit by the pool.
But the late ’50s and ’60s saw change bubbling, and as the fight for civil rights gained traction, Belafonte used his passion, backed by his popularity and connections, to become an active and important participant in the movement. These years take up a good portion of “Sing Your Song,” but they also prove to be the most fascinating. Perhaps most intriguing is Belafonte’s candid account of his interactions with both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, and describing their cagey, but important, support of the movement. Belafonte recalls that John F. Kennedy did not support the March On Washington, noting that he had to assure the President that his presence along with the various other celebrities he rounded up, would help establish a peaceful gathering. He also notes how it was Bobby Kennedy who negotiated the release of Martin Luther King Jr. when he was arrested in Atlanta for a traffic violation, while Richard Nixon and his people completely ignored their calls for their intervention. But even in these accounts of Belafonte navigating politics and his Hollywood rolodex, what comes clear is that his passion was always foremost, even if it put him at risk. A remarkable story is unfolded when, in the aftermath of the murders of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, Belafonte and Sidney Poitier flew into Mississippi to not only lend financial support, but also stayed with locals to boost morale, even as the Ku Klux Klan threatened them almost immediately upon leaving the airport.
And it’s this bravery, an unflagging belief in doing what is right, that comes to define Belafonte throughout “Sing My Song.” When CBS asked Belafonte to change the faces of his mostly colored cast of the variety show “Sugar Hill Times,” the actor chose to ditch the program instead. His appearances on both “Petula” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” were hugely controversial (in the case of the latter, his performance was cut from the show entirely), but Belafonte always stood his ground, refusing to change or reshoot any of the material he provided. Yet both his popularity and the conviction and fervor he brought to various causes continued to grow with each passing year.
But, what “Sing Your Song” isn’t is a hagiography. Belafonte throughout is constantly reassessing and evaluation the worth of his work, questioning his own approach and always seeking new ways to engage past issues while finding new ones worth fighting for. From working with Martin Luther King Jr., to introducing Miriam Makeba to a worldwide audience, to working on the ground in Ethiopia and more recently in the deadly street gang areas of Los Angeles, Belafonte continues to strive for justice and equality. The message in this film is even more potent as the Occupy Wall Street movement spreads worldwide. At the core of Belafonte’s work is a yearning that we can do better for each both at home and abroad, and it’s that simple unquenchable quest, that should answer any doubters as to why thousands upon thousands continue to gather around the globe to join in holding corporations and governments accountable for their actions. Belafonte may be the 1%, but his idealism, hope and optimism find him spiritually aligned with the 99%, and it’s pretty damn inspirational. [B]
“Sing Your Song” premieres tonight on HBO at 10 PM.