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.
“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.”
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.
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)