Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Karen Backstein
Produced by Gina Belafonte, Michael Cohl, Julius R. Nasso; written, edited, and directed by Susan Rostock; edited by Jason Pollard; music by Hahn Rowe. In Color, 104 min. Distributed by New Video.
I have to admit it: I grew up in a Harry Belafonte home, where my father collected every one of his records. Through Belafonte, I first heard music from an astounding variety of countries and cultures and received an introduction to singers like the South African-born Miriam Makeba. I also perceived, at a very young age, that he stood for more than just entertainment—that a social project underlay his music. For anyone who has a vague image of Belafonte only as the handsome performer singing the “Banana Boat” song (familiarly known as “Day-o”) with its irresistible Caribbean lilt, the documentary Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song—made in celebration of his eighty-fifth birthday—provides a solid introduction to the man, his activism, and perhaps a little less fully, his career in music, stage, and screen.
As a singer who embodied the concept of “world music” before those words had ever been coined; an actor who somehow succeeded in becoming a sex symbol for both black and white even in an age of virulent racism; and a politically engaged activist who never minced words and repeatedly angered the Establishment, Harry Belafonte’s rich and eventful life gives Sing Your Song a huge canvas to cover: music, media, politics, celebrity. It follows him from his birth in Harlem, NY, where Belafonte’s father abandoned his family, and his childhood in Jamaica, where his mother sent him to be raised by relatives, through his musical fame as the “King of Calypso,” his battles with the Hollywood system, his commitment to the U.S. Civil Rights and the South African antiapartheid movements, and his current involvement with the issue of black incarceration in America. Featuring plenty of archival footage of Belafonte on stage and off, including some rarer TV material, the documentary also contains a considerable number of first-person interviews with Belafonte and his costars and political cohorts, as well as archival film capturing political upheavals from the Fifties on.
Sing Your Song, in fact, begins not with song, but with images of the Civil Rights movement and the younger Belafonte at a mike angrily affirming that there are “a lot of people here who are pissed off.” Only then, with the political tone of the documentary firmly established, does it turn to the present-day Belafonte himself, reminiscing as he walks through what was his very first apartment in Harlem, propelling a journey forward in time. Belafonte makes clear that his first encounter with the theater led him to think of it not as a space to escape but as “a place of social truth.” Photos of him acting with the American Negro Theater alongside Ethel Waters and footage of folksinger Huddie Ledbetter (popularly known as Leadbelly and an enormous influence on Belafonte, who called him “magical to me”) and others, like Paul Robeson, who also lived lives of art and politics, enhance his words and testify to the charged atmosphere of the era. As the documentary traces Belafonte’s eventful life, it practically takes us on a tour of the major events of the mid-to-late twentieth century and introduces us to the major figures of the time. Belafonte had influential relationships with JFK and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela; fostered close friendships with other activists in the entertainment business, including Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Tony Bennett, and Diahann Carroll; participated in both the notorious march from Selma to Montgomery and King’s 1963 March on Washington; and galvanized the music industry to come together to record “We Are the World” to fight famine in Ethiopia. He tangled with HUAC and had perhaps one of the weirdest encounters ever with an FBI informant who insinuated himself into Belafonte’s life and briefly even became his manager. When Belafonte helped a group of Kenyan students come to the United States to study—always with the intention that they would return to Africa to improve their own nation—one of the beneficiaries of the program was a man named Barack Obama (Sr.)! And the energy and commitment didn’t falter as he grew older; Belafonte was right there at the barricades, fighting against U.S. involvement in Iraq.
Belafonte’s personal experiences galvanized his political commitment: Sing Your Song tells us how he faced down humiliation after humiliation—sometimes winning and sometimes losing. On tour in the segregated South he could not stay with his costars, enter through the front door, or perform without being harassed. When he jumped into a hotel pool in Las Vegas, it cleared out and guards seemed to be approaching him threateningly. Luckily, his fame saved him as poolside onlookers rushed over to beg for his autograph and to take photographs with the star. Belafonte obliged his fans and the guards magically vanished. In films and on TV, a mere touch from a white woman could unleash a storm of controversy. Dancing with Marge Champion, and just holding her hand, or getting a touch on the arm from singer Petula Clark on stage caused uproars. Champion wryly notes that “we made quite a statement,” and in the case of Clark, TV executives fretted that Southern audiences would defect in droves and pushed hard to reshoot. Clark, to her credit, refused to back down. All the while, as producer George Schlattler noted, white women flocked to his performances and screamed in ecstasy as he sang. He became the first person in America to sell a million records. Of course, he was not the only black entertainer whose fame forced him to come to terms with America’s schizophrenia about African-American celebrities; it was all too common. But there was something about Belafonte’s warm and winning stage persona, the accessibility of his folk-based music, and the smoothly sexy swaying of his hips as he danced Caribbean-style that could easily lull audiences—especially white audiences—into forgetting the sharp, principled, and political person he was. His easy presence also made TV executives feel comfortable in allowing him to try innovative programs, including one designed to look at the variety of cultures that made up America. It sounded melting pot harmless, but in the end his real inclusiveness proved too much for the mass media and the show did not go on.
Movies proved an even more difficult nut to crack; Belafonte first appeared in film in 1953’s Bright Road alongside the African-American actress Dorothy Dandridge, and then again in Carmen Jones (where his singing voice was dubbed). Those films caused no problem, but Island in the Sun (1957), which suggested a romance between Belafonte’s and Joan Fontaine’s characters, was “adjusted” by the studio to end on a more racially “suitable” note. A similar revision occurred in The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), a postapocalyptic sci-fi movie produced by Belafonte’s own production company, HARBEL: it could not get a distributor in its original form.
Sing Your Song does a fine job of highlighting Belafonte’s political achievements, bravery, and dignity; it also gives the basics of his personal life and artistic career—the big hits, the gold records, the major appearances, and so forth. But in general, the documentary offers less illumination on Belafonte’s role in music history, especially if it doesn’t have a directly political implication. He was prescient about musical trends, including both the folk and world music booms that occurred later, and I wish that the directors had found someone capable of contextualizing his achievements and analyzing the way some of his Jamaican-tinged repertory was understood. No effort is made to analyze the actual quality or content of his records or films. It’s easy to say that showing a relationship between a black man and a white woman in the Fifties was pure cultural dynamite, but harder to speak in depth about the narrative and cinematic aspects of that depiction. No prominent film historian or media scholar weighs in. Similarly, there’s a sense in which the documentary simply takes his star persona for granted. We never learn how white and black audiences of the time might have regarded him differently, or how he so successfully won over mainstream audiences even as he refused to stay silent in the face of injustice. So my own view is mixed: while the documentary is a welcome introduction to people who are unaware of his importance and a reintroduction to those (like me) who grew up with every album of Belafonte’s in the house, it unfortunately skims over too much too quickly.
Because the film was always made with TV in mind, its quality does not suffer on DVD. The release also includes some enjoyable bonus features not seen when the documentary aired in theaters or on HBO. They include trailers, two full-length music performances (“L’il Liza Jane” and “Hava Nagila”), and a lengthy interview done byDemocracy Now! during the Sundance Film Festival in which Belafonte discusses why he decided to make the documentary and goes into more detail on the topics the film covers. (He doesn’t mince words as he addresses his feelings about President Obama.) It’s also worth noting the DVD insert encourages political action among those who buy the film by suggesting how they can get involved and support human rights.
Karen Backstein has a Ph.D. from New York University's Department of Cinema Studies and has taught at several New York Area colleges.
To purchase Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song, click here.
Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.