Charting fifty years of prejudice and injustice, Susanne Rostock’s biopic documentary Sing Your Song is a serenade to Harry Belafonte and the philanthropy of celebrity.
Backlash Blues by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
We are the world. We are the children. And Harry Belafonte is making a brighter day for all of us. Produced by Belafonte’s daughter Gina and with archive footage supplied by Harry himself, Susanne Rostock’s Sing Your Song is Belafonte’s tribute to a generation of personal friends and political activists. Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and many other celebrity activists of America’s golden age died without their political legacy ever truly explained, and it’s their song that inspires Belafonte and Rostock to sing.
Opening with a prologue montage of oppression and injustice, Sing Your Song quickly backtracks to Belafonte’s first marital home in Harlem. And it’s a rapidly charted life – born in New York to Jamaican parents, shipped off to the safety of the Caribbean island as a teenager and doused in calypso rhythms and workers’ shanties. A munitions loader in World War Two, Belafonte returned home with notions of equality and the black vote, but it wasn’t until his return to NYC that he discovered himself, in the form of the American Negro Theatre, social truth and an ambition to become an actor. His good looks and dulcet voice got the better of him, and Harry was soon performing the American songbook, with little interest. But inspired by a Huddie Ledbetter gig at the Village Vanguard, Belafonte found a political edge to his performance, arming himself with a treasure trove of folk songs from the Library of Congress.
A mixture of children’s lullabies, like his best-selling hit Scarlet Ribbons, or Jamaican-lilted mento songs like Day-O, Belafonte was simultaneously boringly conformist and daringly different with his vocal black-up. But, shooting to fame with a Tony award for John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, Belafonte soon discovered the realities of segregation beyond the Mason-Dixon Line. The only black man in a mixed-race troupe, Belafonte had to enter Las Vegas’s Thunderbird Hotel through the back door, sleep in its parking lot camp and eat in a segregated cafeteria. Barred from the hotel swimming pool, Harry dared to take the plunge, and while the pool rapidly empties of all its white holidaymakers, it’s not long before they return, cameras in hand. The mixed race troupe of performers was by itself a silent statement, but it was celebrity, as much as Belafonte’s easygoing charm, that oiled the gears. What was tolerable face-to-face however was still publicly a scandal, and reactions to Belafonte’s onscreen romance with Joan Fontaine in Island In The Sun revealed a deep-rooted, unquenchable racism.
It was perhaps Belafonte’s appearance in Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones that secured his shooting stardom, and allowed his celebrity to hold ascendence over the civil rights campaign. But for most of the cast, the all-black musical was making pretty with borrowed time. Belafonte did, however, manage to politicise his co-stars, and went on to found his own production company, HarBel, to make confrontational films like the apocalyptic, political sci-fi movie The World, The Flesh And The Devil. Belafonte’s films didn’t escape the funder’s blue pencil either, and the film’s interracial love scene was excised to the cutting room floor. But it wan’t until Belafonte befriended Martin Luther King and adopted his ethos of civil disobedience and non-violence that his political activism suddenly stepped out from the personal sphere.
After King was arrested and sentenced to a chain gang for a minor traffic infraction, Belafonte, at the peak of his career, captured his plight in his TV show Tonight With Belafonte with a slavery-themed folk song. The show was a melting pot of all-American tunes, from gospel and blues to Hava Nagila and Guantanamera. But with Belafonte refusing to renege on its black and white cast, the Emmy award-winning show was axed. It was a daring step that marked Belafonte’s move out of TV and into politics, appealing to 1960 election candidates Nixon and Kennedy for the civil rights leader’s release. Bobby Kennedy negotiated with North Carolina State on King’s behalf, and in return Belafonte and King lent the Kennedys their support, come polling day. It was of course purely symbolic, but Belafonte was nevertheless crucial to the March on Washington, which led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, allaying JFK’s fears of a race riot with a pacifying sprinkling of celebrity in the form of Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Charlton Heston. And he was more than just a star-catcher – as much an inspiration to the marchers on Montgomery across the Edmund Pettus Bridge as the moonlit recruitment concerts of Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jnr and Nina Simone.
An influential civil rights activist, Belafonte was branded a communist, his own history red-washed. And after a visit to a psychologist he was ensnared by FBI informant Jay Richard Kennedy in his attempts to wheedle information from the most politically suspicious stars. Despite a split from his first wife, Belafonte makes little of the inevitable disruption of those dark McCarthy days. And there’s little sense of victory or accomplishment in Sing Your Song, perhaps overshadowed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, the continued threat of the Klan or the murder of three volunteers in Mississippi registering new black voters. But instead the documentary crosses the Atlantic, Belafonte taking the fight for black independence to Africa, where colonialism was in its last death throes. Singing with the voice of Africa, Miriam Makeba, Belafonte took on the troubles of the world and made them his own. It was impossible for him to visit apartheid-era South Africa except as a binded servant, but with the Grammy-winning record Come Back Africa, Belafonte planted a thorn in the oppressor’s side, and in South Africa the disc was banned. Exposing the plight of Native Americans, the USA’s treatment of Haiti, or driving USA For Africa’s response to the hunger crisis in Ethiopia, We Are The World, Belafonte has never given up the fight.
He’s demonstrated for peace in Iraq, and spoken out about the epidemic of incarceration and the criminalisation of poverty. A lifetime filled with good works, Sing Your Song feels in many ways like an obituary film – if not for Belafonte, then at least for a very 20th century political engagement. And while the singer’s private life is neatly negotiated out-of-frame with a few cursory explanations on dissolved marriages and blossoming love, Sing Your Song is dominated by Belafonte’s testimony, and it can at times feels a little self-congratulatory. He divided his life between his own family and the family of man, each day seeking out injustices to humankind to undermine. Even now, there’s still too much to be done for Belafonte to stop, and Sing Your Song works best as a baton to be shouldered. It’s his story, and a myth-building, proselytising one at that. The cursory glimpses of current struggles and the nostalgic refraction to past battles make political engagement as a result of Sing Your Song unlikely. But watching the indefatigable optimism of Harry Belafonte, it’s impossible not to have enormous respect and gratitude for him, and an unshakeable desire to sing his song.
Sing Your Song is released in the UK on 8th June 2012