Harry Belafonte was a disarmingly handsome sex symbol of the 1950s and 1960s, a rare black leading man who challenged the pervasive racial segregation of American pop culture. He rose to prominence acting with Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando and shared the stage with Dorothy Dandridge, as well as headlined national tours as the crooner of the million-selling calypso single "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)." And yet, as the new HBO documentary Sing Your Song (premiering October 17th) notes, he still suffered from the abject bigotry of the era: in 1952, while touring the South with his interracial band, a police officer threatened to kill him if he used the restroom reserved for white patrons.
Sing Your Song, which was screened last night at Time Warner headquarters in Manhattan, focuses briefly on Belafonte’s early, massive success as an actor and jazz singer. But most of the film explores Belafonte's inexhaustible work as a civil rights leader. In fact, the documentary – which was co-produced by daughter Gina Belafonte and directed by Susanne Rostock – derives its name from the resonant advice given to Belafonte by his mentor, the singer/activist Paul Robeson: "Get them to sing your song and they’ll want to know who you are."
Belafonte’s clear passion lies in promoting social progress, and the film is reverent in its approach to his ongoing activism – perhaps not surprisingly, as Belafonte was instrumental in seemingly every major civil rights touchstone of the turbulent 1960s, and many more onward: He was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s confidant, endorsed John F. Kennedy for president and helped secure African-American voters, helped orchestrate the 1963 March on Washington and the global 1985 "We Are the World" fundraiser for African famine relief, and coordinated Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the United States.
Belafonte displayed this passion for social progress after the screening in a conversation with the film critic Elvis Mitchell. When the eager Mitchell attempted to prolong an analysis of Belafonte’s film career, Belafonte, who is 84, answered graciously but proved far more animated in turning the subject to his political work, speaking eloquently and in greatly informed complexity about racism, poverty and inequality across the globe. "If you look at the history of my life, it’s all movement," he said pensively. "I was attached to a history and a way of life that was quite eventful . . . To revisit these places [during filming] where acts of dehumanization were in full bloom was extremely difficult."
Sing Your Song, which opened this year’s Sundance Film Festival, provides moving archival footage of these harrowing events, and also that of his current activism in Haiti, inner-city Los Angeles, Iraq and more. It does gloss over some of the more contentious aspects in Belafonte’s life – his fractured childhood and two divorces, his children’s feelings of abandonment, his temporary disillusionment with the static nature of modern politics. It also finds Belafonte very modest about his political impact, and restlessly continuing to ask, "What do I do now?" as he watches the world shudder with change.
Last night, he asked the question again, but with a dash of that long-adored Hollywood charisma. Belafonte animatedly dissected his current work with incarcerated youths and the modern "criminalization of poverty" in America, as well as praised the uprising in Egypt and the current Occupy Wall Street protests for their nonviolence. "This constituency in Africa, parts of the Middle East, and here in the United States: we want the oppression to stop," he said adamantly. "I feel that what was done in the years of the Civil Rights movement, the sacrifices made by those students . . . really shaped a future for this country that we have momentarily lost."
Mitchell cocked his eyebrow. "You feel it’s only momentary?"
"I have to think it’s winnable," said Belafonte gravely. Then he broke into a broad, familiar grin. "Otherwise I may as well go home, smoke a spliff and call it a day."