To most younger people who remember him, Harry Belafonte is mainly known for singing infectious but vaguely annoying 1950s Afro-Caribbean pop songs like Day-O.
Indeed, anyone under 30 may not know who he is at all.
If so, this expansive and entertaining, if sometimes hagiographic, documentary from Susanne Rostock will definitely set them straight.
And if Rostock’s film is a little fawning now and then, it’s hard to blame her, because Belafonte’s has been a truly extraordinary life.
Born in extreme poverty in a Harlem tenement in 1927, Harold George Bellanfanti Jr was the child of a Caribbean housekeeper, and was partly raised in Jamaica by his grandfather.
After finishing high school in Harlem, he served in the US Navy during World War II and returned to New York. He was working as a janitor’s assistant when a tenant gave him tickets to a show at Harlem’s American Negro Theater.
The theatre’s resident company used plays to give a voice to the black American experience, and the young Belafonte was entranced.
He met Sidney Poitier and began acting, but also experimented with singing and developed a keen interest in folk songs, both American and Jamaican. In 1956 Belafonte had a big hit with Caribbean folk song Matilda, and his debut album Calypso became the first LP to sell over a million copies.
He became an overnight sensation, and audiences went wild for his sensual live performances, but Harry was no mere pop star.
Inspired by the fearless campaigning of black singer Paul Robeson, Belafonte became increasingly exercised by the fate of black Americans, and would be a key player in the Civil Rights movement.
It’s this period of Belafonte’s life that Rostock’s film spends most time exploring, and understandably so, because the singer’s contribution to that cause cannot be overstated.
He bailed Martin Luther King out of Birmingham City Jail; supported the preacher’s family; financed the Freedom Riders; courted the Kennedys; and helped organise the iconic March on Washington in 1963.
Belafonte also rallied Hollywood chums like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Charlton Heston to put their names to the Civil Rights movement, and the singer also put his own career, and even his life, at risk.
Admirable stuff, and at 85 he’s still going strong.
But Rostock’s film is too respectful to provide genuine insight; the recollections of Belafonte, Poitier and others about the ’60s are fascinating, but Belafonte’s personal life is only nodded to respectfully, and no hard questions are asked.
Why, for instance, has he been so consistently ambivalent about the presidency of Barack Obama?
- Paul Whitington