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Sing Your Song: movie review

'Sing Your Song' shows the energy and optimism Harry Belafonte gave to civil rights work – around the world.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / January 13, 2012

Harry Belafonte's roles as civil rights activist, singer, and actor are documented in 'Sing Your Song.'

Courtesy of S2BN Films

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At the start of “Sing Your Song,” the documentary about Harry Belafonte, he talks about the lesson his mother handed down to him. “She made me understand,” he says, “that there was nothing in life that we could not aspire to.” And indeed, in the course of his long life as a singer, actor, and, above all, political activist, Belafonte has covered a lot of ground. His own mantra, often repeated in the film is “What do you do now?” and he intends it as a call to action.

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“Sing Your Song” is, remarkably, the first full-scale documentary about Belafonte, who was 83 at the time the film was shot. It’s also a co-production of Belafonte Enterprises, with his daughter Gina serving as co-producer, which probably accounts for both the film’s successes and deficiencies. “Sing Your Song” doesn’t do much to open up his “inner life,” keeping the emphasis almost entirely on his public life. The implication is that, for Belafonte, personal reflection is downtime – a distraction from the work in the world that must be done.

There is something off-putting and impersonal about this stance. Belafonte is presented by director Susanne Rostock as an icon-in-motion. His terse references to marital difficulties and absentee fatherhood are like blips on the screen. The film’s hagiographic tone is regrettable, but, it must be said, Belafonte’s heroism is the real deal. If any entertainer in the past 60 years deserves to be lauded for his political activism, it’s Belafonte. To chart his career is to take in a good portion of the history of civil rights activism not only in America but around the world.

He was born in Harlem and, after his father abandoned his family, was moved by his mother to relatives in Jamaica, where he learned many of the calypso songs that became the foundation of his success as a singer in the 1950s. As an actor in the American Negro Theater he came up at the same time as Sidney Poitier, a lifelong friend (and sometimes rival). He won a Tony in 1951 for his role in the show “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac” and began appearing in such movies as “Bright Road,” “Carmen Jones,” and “Island in the Sun.”

His friendship with Paul Robeson and his increasingly outspoken stance on social issues did not go down well in the red-baiting blacklist era. Neither did his position as one of the few black performers in Hollywood to appear in movies as a dramatic lead. Among the most attractive of actors, he was carefully shielded from even a hint of any romantic onscreen involvements with white actresses.

At the height of his singing fame he was not allowed to stay in the Las Vegas hotels where he headlined. In Hollywood, he would be stopped by police in Beverly Hills while taking a stroll. As his friend Diahann Carroll, who also appeared in “Carmen Jones,” says about the lack of opportunity for black actors in Hollywood: “We were not there to have a film career. We were renting space.”

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