“I live in a perpetual state of optimism…”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Artist and activist Harry Belafonte turned 84 in March of this year…and has lost none of his expertise for making headlines. On a recent edition of The Joy Behar Show, he was extremely critical of former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and now GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, labeling him “a bad apple” — and later remarked to Newsweek, “I’m pretty sure African Americans don’t take Cain seriously, but I’m not sure about white people. They believe this black man is the real deal. He isn’t. Anyone who says what he says isn’t.” Cain volleyed back, remarking “He’s been on that banana boat too long” — a reference to the actor-singer’s million-selling record in 1956, “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O).”
At the risk of getting into a political urination contest…Herman Cain can’t carry Harry Belafonte’s jockstrap. While Cain was content to shuck and jive in the back of the bus during the Civil Rights struggle, Belafonte was at the forefront of that movement…as a confidant to Martin Luther King, Jr., and an organizer/supporter of many of the landmark events during that era (the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, etc.). Long before celebrities such as Sean Penn and Angelina Jolie stretched beyond their chosen professions with defiant political stands and causes, Harry was one of the first to walk the walk and talk the talk…and as a new HBO documentary, Sing Your Song, demonstrates — he is “the real deal.”
The running time of Sing Your Song (1 hour and 45 minutes) can’t scratch the surface in documenting Belafonte’s remarkable career — in fact, the presentation is but one portion of a retrospective look at the actor-singer’s life; a memoir entitled My Song was published recently and allows Belafonte to take a more detailed and anecdotal look into his amazing past. Sing Your Song acts as a primer for those individuals whose only familiarity with the performer-activist boils down to asking the boss man to count his bananas. The documentary offers rich, rewarding archival footage of Harry’s TV appearances and clips from his movies, supplemented with Belafonte’s narration and on-camera interviews with the likes of Diahann Carroll, the late Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond, Rep. John Lewis and Sidney Poitier, to name just a few. Directed by Susanne Rostock and co-produced by his daughter Gina, Song tells the story of Belafonte’s triumph over a life of hardscrabble poverty to become a Emmy, Grammy and Tony Award-winning performer whose dedication to the cause of social justice was prompted by his mother once telling him “that I should never, ever awaken in a day where there wasn’t something in our agenda that would help set the course for the undermining of injustice.”
Harold George Belafonte, Jr. was born in Harlem in 1927 to immigrant parents — and when his father left his mother shortly after his birth, she was forced to compensate in a one-parent household by working as a domestic, sending Harry and his brother to live with their grandparents in Jamaica. His early life (1932-40) in that country would have a profound effect on his future profession. That career direction was decided one night back in New York when he attended a performance of Home is the Hunter at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem (he was working as a janitor’s assistant and received tickets to the play as a gratuity). He joined the theater company (his fellow students included Brock Peters and lifelong friend Poitier), and soon after became a pupil under the tutelage of German director Erwin Piscator at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School of Social Research. (Among Harry’s classmates: Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur and Rod Steiger.)
To pay for his acting classes, Belafonte worked as a nightclub singer in New York — his first gig found the likes of Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis playing as his “back-up band.” Belafonte had started out singing pop tunes in 1949, but he became interested in folk music after seeing a performance by Huddie Ledbetter and studied the history of that music at the archives of the Library of Congress. He soon became a regular at New York’s Village Vanguard, and it was there that the legendary actor-singer-activist Paul Robeson made Harry’s acquaintance, advising him: “Get them to sing your song and they will want to know you are.” (Hence the title of the documentary.) Robeson would become one of the many mentoring influences in Belafonte’s meteoric rise to fame, which all began with a Tony Award for his participation in a Broadway production of John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. With his first single released in 1953 and first LP a year later (Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites), Belafonte’s breakthrough album came in 1956, entitled Calypso — the first LP certified as a million seller. In clips from variety shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore and Steve Allen, Sing Your Song features snippets of Harry’s popular hits such as “Jamaica Farewell,” “Mama Look at Bubu” and “Man Smart, Woman Smarter.”
Achieving success with a gold record album was not all peaches and cream for Belafonte, who was also carving out a niche in motion pictures beginning with his first film for MGM, Bright Road (1953), co-starring Dorothy Dandridge. During production on this film, Harry was staying with friends at a house in Beverly Hills when he decided to take a fresh air stroll one night and found himself stopped by the local constabulary, whose interest in him seemed to center around the fact that he was “walking around Beverly Hills while being black.” It wouldn’t be the first time the actor-singer would be on the receiving end of the cold water splash of prejudice; he details in Song how he wasn’t able to stay in the same hotels as co-stars Marge and Gower Champion when they toured with their revue 3 For Tonight (his encounter with a state trooper after attempting to relieve himself in a “whites only” restroom is particularly memorable) and how his protest over similar conditions at a Las Vegas hotel (he was the headliner but wasn't expected to use the main entrance or eat in the hotel’s main dining facilities) earned him a warning “that the only way I would leave Las Vegas if I didn’t fulfill that contract would be in a box.” (Harry gets the last laugh; Fran Scott Attaway, the wife of Belafonte’s bandleader, relates an incident in which Harry summons up the stones to take a dip in the hotel’s lily-white swimming pool.)
Despite motion picture success in films such as Carmen Jones (1954; which re-teamed him with Dandridge), Belafonte encountered similar hostile racial attitudes in the movie industry — controversy arose from his performance in the 1957 film Island in the Sun, which intimated that there was a romance going on between his character and that of Joan Fontaine’s — something that was anathema to Southern audiences (his publicist, Mike Merrick, observes that the ticklish situation nevertheless made curious onlookers more determined to see the film). Belafonte’s struggle to find good roles free of negative black stereotypes led him to start his own production company in HarBel — which produced movies such as The World, The Flesh and the Devil (an “end of the world” film whose ending was tampered with by MGM when the touchy issue of a romance between Harry and white Inger Stevens once again caused Southern audiences to revolt) and Odds Against Tomorrow (both 1959). (In an interview with The Daily Beast, Belafonte cited the last movie — a noir that mixes a heist film with a searing examination of racial prejudice — as “the centerpiece of my work in cinema.”) Everywhere Harry seemed to turn he would confront the specter of intolerance; his television specials Tonight with Belafonte and Belafonte, New York 19, despite winning critical and ratings accolades (Tonight won Harry a Emmy for outstanding performance in a variety or musical program or series) earned him enmity from the sponsors for his insistence on using racially integrated casts.
Belafonte recently related to an interviewer: “I was an activist before I was an actor. I was aware of all happening around me that was wrong in the midst of getting into this career. All of us did during those times, and we couldn’t sit back and worry about the consequences of doing something. We had to speak out about what was wrong in this country, and we did.” It is this portion of Harry’s life that makes much of Sing Your Song fascinating viewing; the audience learns that his friendships with Robeson and later Martin Luther King, Jr. earned him the unwelcome intrusion of the FBI (who was convinced back then that anyone fighting for the cause of equal rights must be some sort of Commie) — Belafonte’s first marriage to wife Marguerite Byrd suffered the severe strain of J. Edgar’s interest in the activist; Byrd simply couldn’t reconcile that the stories being handed to her about Belafonte by the bureau were complete bullshit. His closeness with Dr. King is even more remarkable and is choc-a-bloc with anecdotes; it was Belafonte who lobbied presidential candidate John F. Kennedy (then a senator) to intervene on King’s behalf when King was sentenced to work on a Georgia chain gang for a minor traffic violation. Later, Harry was needed to put the Kennedy administration’s fears to rest about the unrest that they believed would result from the 1963 March on Washington. Belafonte proudly relates how he persuaded the Kennedy people to eventually side with those in the civil rights movement, and in particular the part he played in educating Robert Kennedy, who may have been his brother’s attorney general but was still quite conservative in his politics (he had worked for Sen. Joseph McCarthy early in his career). (King once said to Belafonte about Bobby Kennedy: “In that mind resides good; go out and find that man’s moral center and win him to our cause.”)
Sing Your Song provides telling details about Belafonte’s humanitarian efforts on behalf of Haiti, South Africa and other nations, particularly as one of the organizers behind USA for Africa and as goodwill ambassador to UNICEF …and comes full circle to the actor-singer’s struggle to make individuals aware of the growing problem with at-risk and incarcerated black/Latino gang youth (his palpable rage at seeing television news footage of a 9-year-old girl being handcuffed because she was “unruly” is not something easily forgotten). If there are any weak areas in Song, it’s that Belafonte’s controversial stance on the Iraq War (with headline-grabbing remarks directed toward its architects U.S. Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, not to mention President George W. Bush) is sort of glossed over, but then much of the material from later in his life (including some of his film work from the '70s up to today) is telescoped to fit the demands of the documentary’s running time.
“How could it be that the world is in the chaos and disorder and the consuming violence that we are all experiencing after so many had invested so much to change that fact?” Harry Belafonte asks the interviewer’s camera close to the end of Sing Your Song. The struggle against injustice is a constant one, and while Harry Belafonte was able to temper the fight on occasion through his music and acting, he would pay a price for his activism; several of his children and second wife Julie Robinson (the two of them later divorced and Belafonte married his third wife, Pamela in April 2008) relate in Song that while Harry wasn’t a bad father it was often a trial serving two families (his own and his activism) making demands on his time. The release of this documentary and his memoir My Song comes at a most opportune time when the U.S. is in a current state of upheaval over the issues of unemployment, health care and poverty. It is one thing to allow individuals to do the heavy lifting addressing the ills of the system in order for you to reap financial benefits (and perhaps run for president), it is another to commit yourself to a mindset that “from the time I go to sleep till the time I get up, I seek out the injustices done to humankind.” Harry Belafonte continues to sing his song…and we are all richer for his having done so.
The original HBO documentary Sing Your Song has an encore performance today at 11:30 a.m. EDT (10:30 a.m. Central) and also can be viewed later at 2:30 p.m. on HBO West. It will continue to air at various time and dates on various HBO channels through Nov. 22. The documentary also is available on HBO On Demand (where applicable) until Nov. 13. It will be accessible to HBO subscribers on HBO GO until Dec. 31, 2012. For more details, check out its entry on HBO’s website here.