Sing Your Song: movie review
'Sing Your Song' shows the energy and optimism Harry Belafonte gave to civil rights work – around the world.
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A variety-show TV series hosted by Belafonte was canceled – or to be more exact, he walked off it – because the sponsors wanted to change the composition of the entertainers from multiracial to white. An appearance with Petula Clark on her TV special, where she sings a number with Belafonte and touches his arm, was strenuously objected to by the show’s advertisers. A politically tinged appearance on the “The Smothers Brothers Show” led to that show’s abrupt cancellation. And so on, ad nauseum.Skip to next paragraph
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The documentary skimps on Belafonte’s post-’50s acting career (he was marvelous in movies like Robert Altman’s “Kansas City”) which, in any event, was rapidly overshadowed by his activism. His involvement with Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy is amply documented. (We don’t hear, however, what he thinks of the militancy of Malcolm X or the Black Panthers.) He tells a harrowing story about the time he and Poitier, delivering funds to civil rights workers during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, were set upon by the Ku Klux Klan on the road leading out of the airport in Greenwood, Miss. He became an early anti-apartheid champion in South Africa. It’s a sweet moment when he appears alongside Nelson Mandela in 1990 before a full house in Yankee Stadium. (Suited up in the baseball team’s cap and jersey, a beaming Mandela declares, “I am a Yankee!”)
Belafonte’s activism in Africa takes him to Kenya and Ethiopia. He plays an integral role in helping to create the mammoth “We Are the World” fundraiser. Later on, he joins protest marches against American involvement in Iraq. “I just can’t let them win,” he says in reference to those whom he perceives as racists and bad players on the world stage.
In some ways the most moving aspects of “Sing Your Song” are the contemporary sequences of Belafonte working with crime-ridden youth and prison inmates. (Referring to the overwhelming percentage of blacks and Latinos in the prison population, he calls incarceration “the new slavery.”) The rappers and students who follow in his wake seem to regard Belafonte as more than an elder statesman. He’s an inspiration, not least because, even now, his energy matches theirs.
Celebrity activism has a dubious distinction in a modern era when it seems as if every Hollywood star is aligned, often in name only, with a political cause. Belafonte stands out from this crowd. In personal terms, his life as a “movement builder” may have been rough on those around him, but he’s still carrying the torch. He is looking for solutions “where the young reside.” You can believe Belafonte when he says, “I grew up my whole life in a state of perpetual optimism.” His life gives credence to the advice, from which this film takes its title, once given to him by Robeson: “Sing your song and they will know who you are.” Grade: B+ (Unrated)