Among the black entertainers who worked to ensure civil rights throughout the 20th century, Harry Belafonte’s demeanor has proven a remarkable teaching tool.
Blessed with chiseled good looks that even Archie Bunker (in the memorable Sammy Davis Jr. episode of “All in the Family”) had to admit were stunning and a golden, buttery voice to match, Belafonte has used his immensely likeable public persona to usher in and work toward revolution.
Early on in Sing Your Song — the engrossing new first-person documentary about Belafonte’s life which screened in the subject’s presence at the Walker Art Center on Thursday and plays for a week at the Film Society of Minneapolis-St. Paul at St. Anthony Main starting tonight — one of Belafonte’s friends remembers a characteristic scene. The entertainer was in Las Vegas for an extended singing stint. He had been told that he couldn’t stay in any of the luxury hotels and, in fact, had to enter his performing venue through the back door. Vegas, he was informed, had a segregated are where he was expected to stay.
Not one to roll over, Belafonte eventually strolled alongside a hotel pool where, in full view of hundreds of white patrons, stood on the diving board and leapt gracefully into the water. No sooner had he committed this brazen act were people rushing, falling over themselves to get a picture with the singer.
The point: Belafonte has always seemed aware of his unflappably genial identity, and has used that to his advantage. “Get them to sing your song, and they’ll want to know who you are.”
Belafonte himself narrates his life experience in Sing Your Song, and it’s the same welcoming tones that keep the movie flirting with hagiography; though, given the subject matter on display, it’s not like it’s totally unwarranted. He’s been at the center of almost every significant American social movement since his emergence in the 1950s, and has long kept his pulse on upheavals and strife across the globe. (In case you were wondering, yes, the FBI had a file on him.)
Working with director-editor Susanne Rostock (and, among other producers, Minnesota-connected William Eigen), Belafonte said he wasn’t inclined to promote himself, but he said he saw other contemporaries like Marlon Brando pass on without having the full extent of their public service preserved for posterity and thought he couldn’t let that happen to everyone in his circle.
In fact, while talking with critic Scott Foundas at the Walker Thursday night, Belafonte alluded to the possible ulterior motivations connected with this act of “self-preservation” when he contemplated the current state of politics. Ever the committed leftist, Belafonte worried that too many people (particularly within the black community) were buying into the line of argument that what happened in the past is just that: in the past. If you allow your elders’ experiences to be swept into the dustbins of history, he suggested, you allow yourself to be robbed of any experiential foundation for social efficacy.
As compelling as the movie is, I daresay it was enriched that much more by having the chance to hear Belafonte speak on its behalf in person. (The dialogue is not yet up on the Walker’s website, but keep an eye out here.) He spoke for nearly two hours after the screening, prodded by no more than three or four questions total. It’s not hard to see just how Rostock ended up with some 700 hours (!) of raw footage.
I say the movie was enriched because Sing Your Song itself is, though deeply felt, absent some of the grace notes that would’ve given Belafonte’s life a little more honest shading. The movie gives us the “Day-O” Belafonte crusading around the globe, not the Belafonte that has, in recent times, gotten in some trouble for running his mouth off about certain black Republican politicians.
At the Walker, Belafonte chose his words carefully, but also spoke in no uncertain terms about his contempt for a film industry that still (50 years after Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge set the screen afire in Carmen Jones) offers its token black actors roles in The Help, his heartbreak that the music industry has cashed in on the early promise of hip-hop and is now embroiled in an ongoing, offensive sellout, and his distrust over Barack Obama’s true allegiances. (“He very rarely visits black churches,” Belafonte insisted. “He very rarely visits black schools.”)
Whether you agree or disagree with his positions on issues of race, inequality, injustice and Octavia Spencer’s Oscar win, it’s hard not to come to the realization that a warts-and-all portrait is more compelling. Which is why I could’ve listened to him talk well past midnight.