As a kid, Harry Belafonte was inspired by the Charlie Chaplin films that lampooned the industrial revolution and the Nazis. His appreciation for such films as ''The Great Dictator'' begat the inspiration he got from Sean O'Casey, Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, John Steinbeck, and Clifford Odets.

''All of these men are artists who had social and political conscience in everything they did,'' the entertainer said recently.

They knew their plays, books, and movies had power and could ''lead people to a vision and a truth,'' Belafonte said during a break from rehearsing at a Harlem theater.

That's why he's always felt you can't separate social reality from art. It also helps explain why he's worked so hard for certain social and political causes over the years: marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to advance civil rights, working with Nelson Mandela to overturn apartheid, helping to organize the ''We Are the World'' effort for starving Africans and ''Hands Across America'' for the hungry here. In 1960, President Kennedy named him a cultural adviser to the Peace Corps, and he's served as a UN goodwill ambassador since 1987.

As an actor, he's also quite the activist. For the first time since ''Uptown Saturday Night'' two decades ago, Belafonte has starring roles in major movies.

In ''White Man's Burden,'' which opened nationwide Dec. 1, he plays a wealthy industrialist living in a world in which blacks are dominant and whites make up the underclass. He'll also be seen as a 1930s gangster in Robert Altman's upcoming ''Kansas City.''

''I guess if I really had to make my living exclusively off films, I would perhaps have done much more,'' he says. ''But I really didn't like so much of the material that was around and ... how the industry sought to probe into the inner recesses of the black experience.''

But two years ago, his friendships with directors Jonathan Demme and Altman led to discussions about subject matter that excited him. Also, he thought the way they wanted to portray blacks was ''very healthy,'' he says.

''I feel like I've been resurrected, and I'm in my second youth of life,'' Belafonte says. But perhaps more importantly than all of that, I'm doing pictures that are by and large on my terms.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.