The boy Harry from Harlem did good

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.

His energy and commitment is remarkable, and his engagement against injustice has continued; he’s campaigned against apartheid, famine in Africa, and the American engagement in Iraq.

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

The Promise of Black Power, Seen Through a European Lens

A documentary reminds us why the black power movement is still relevant

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 , released on DVD this month, is a documentary culled from Swedish television footage of the American black power movement. As such, it presents an unsettlingly European perspective on race in America. From bloated, aging white sunbathers on Miami Beach to apparently menacing, poor, black Harlem residents glimpsed through bus windows, Americans, one and all, are turned into anthropological oddities, quaint parables, and eccentric amusements. In short, the Swedes do to us what we are so accustomed to doing to the rest of the world.

The turnabout definitely has an air of enjoyable schadenfreude. But there’s a painful touch of truth there as well. The Swedes are much more sympathetic to the oppressed black underclass than they are to the oppressive white majority government. And yet we’re all being watched through that European lens. What white and black Americans have never quite been able to do for ourselves, the Swedes do for us, granting every race equality through the blind justice of documentary condescension.

That isn’t to say that an American documentary on this topic would be better. Quite the opposite. The Swedes are clearly repulsed by what they perceive as white America’s smugness and brutality, and are fascinated by black America’s courage, resistance…and brutality. As Stokely Carmichael explains in a fascinating 1967 interview, the black power movement had respect and even reverence for Martin Luther King, but it defined itself in large part in opposition to his non-violent tactics.

“[Dr. King] is a man who could accept the uncivilized behavior of white Americans, their unceasing taunts, and still have in his heart forgiveness,” Carmichael says. “Unfortunately, I am from a younger generation. I am not as patient as Dr. King and I am not as merciful as Dr. King. And their unwillingness to deal with someone like Dr. King just means they have to deal with this younger generation.”

And so, deal with it they did, mostly by shooting it and putting it in jail. One of the more painful moments in the film is an interview with Bobby Seale, where he explains calmly, earnestly, and convincingly that the Black Panther party is armed and will shoot any “racist dog policeman” who tries to give it trouble because the members of the party are “bent on surviving.” Of course, those racist dog policemen eventually imprisoned Seale for years, and racist dog FBI agents broke the Panthers apart. The fatal flaw with black power is that however many guns you buy, whitey always has more.

Or at least, whitey always had more. Today, the man with the most guns in the entire world is black. I’m sure Barack Obama could wax more eloquent than I on the mistakes of the Black Panthers, but there’s a very real sense in which he is the ultimate fulfillment of their dream as much, if not more, than of Martin Luther King’s. Eldridge Cleaver, for example, speaking from exile in Algeria, talks about his hope that black communities in the U.S. might obtain a limited sovereignty. And now, 40+ years later, a black man commands not a limited sovereignty, but the whole sovereignty kaboodle.

Similarly, in one of the modern voice-overs appended to the footage throughout, Erykah Badu insists that a people must have the right to defend themselves and their families. She certainly has a point, but it’s the same point that Obama (or, for that matter, Bush) has when he explains why it’s necessary for us to have our troops wandering around with guns here, there, and everywhere. The logic of power is the logic of power. Stokely Carmichael laid it out, but Obama followed it through to its conclusion—not least by calibrating his rhetoric and compromising his policies in a way that Carmichael never would have. When it comes to the exercise of force, the pragmatist, as it turns out, has a good bit to teach the revolutionary.

If Obama fulfills, and indeed transcends, the black power movement’s visions of empowerment, he also demonstrates vividly the extent to which empowerment, per se, was not the only vision. The Black Panthers weren’t just guns and force and promising to shoot the pigs. They were also free clinics, and food distribution programs, and community building. In this respect, the footage here demonstrates how important women were to the movement. It was they who keeping the social kept running and a dream of change alive while the men followed the dream of violence into prison cells or, at worst, death.

Perhaps the person who makes this aspect of the movement clearest is Angela Davis. In a 1974 interview in her prison cell, a Swedish interviewer asks her if she approves of violence. With some exasperation, she explains that in a society like the United States, violence is going to occur—and then goes on to a heartfelt condemnation of the racist brutality and bombings she experienced growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. Though she doesn’t reject violence the way King did, there is in her answer an understanding of violence, and a horror of it. No doubt she’s mellowed some over the years. But still, I don’t think there’s actually any disconnect between her fiery statements about violence from 1974 and a voice over from 2010 near the end of the film in which she insists that even now, “under a black president,” we have to work together for “a future without war and without racism and without prisons.”

The black power movement, as seen here, had multiple goals. On the one hand, it hoped to give black people the kind of power that white people had. And you could argue that, despite the massive continuing disparities between black and white in this country, with Obama that hope was to some extent fulfilled. But the black power movement also hoped for a different kind of world; a world where violence would not be necessary, where America would forswear imperial adventures like Vietnam. It hoped for a world where, as Davis said, there would be no racism and no prison, and where, as someone else said, justice would roll on like rivers and righteousness like a mighty stream. This second goal was more ambitious, and the progress in attaining it has perhaps inevitably been less. But the dream isn’t dead as long as we remember it. The creators of The Black Power Mixtape, white and black, Swedish and American, deserve credit for helping us to do so.