While Martin Luther King Jr. is recognized internationally as an icon in the struggle for civil rights, his close friend and fellow activist, Harry Belafonte has arguably not received as much acknowledgment on these shores. As director Susanne Rostock illuminates in Sing Your Song, Belafonte has lived a life worthy of recognition having championed the rights of the oppressed and marginalised of the world and yet is showing few signs of slowing down now in his 85th year.
Born in Harlemand raised by his single mother, Belafonte spent his formative years in Jamaica before returning to America to serve in the Navy as a munitions loader during World War II. Identifying this period as the birth of his social activism, he gravitated towards the performing arts upon his return to civilian life. While he was inspired by his hero, the actor and political activist Paul Robeson, to research folk song, he first found musical success as a singer of Caribbean music, later being dubbed the “King of Calypso”. With a burgeoning career in film, theatre and television, Belafonte drew attention from the FBI for his increasing political activism and his close friendship with Dr Martin Luther King, which would continue up until King’s death in 1968. He would later extend his support to Nelson Mandela during the Apartheid era and later on continue his humanitarian work in Africa.
The fact that Harry Belafonte resisted scrutiny of his extraordinary life speaks volumes, but it would be the death of close friend and kindred spirit Marlon Brando, which would encourage him to revisit his past and to highlight the other kindred spirits who shared his quest for justice. With such an interesting subject, the greatest challenge for Rostock is to compress Belafonte’s life on screen to less than two hours, which she manages successfully. As such, Sing Your Song feels on the History Channel side of the documentary form, with archive and newsreel footage offering a primer on social and political change in post-war America. Rostock however positions Belafonte at the forefront of this important period peppering the film with fascinating anecdotes from friends, such as Sidney Poitier, going beyond the grainy black and white footage to present a real sense of the struggles and danger he and his friends faced.
The inevitable toll on Belafonte’s personal life as a result of balancing his activism alongside his entertainment career is touched on, with little in the way of disapproval of him from family or his former wife. In such a cynical age some may wonder can such a person be so selfless and genuine. Rostock answers that with a resounding yes, with Belafonte’s character and indefatigable nature marked by his desire to spend time visiting prisons to hear the stories of the new underclasses in society, those who have been criminalised by poverty.
“What do we do now?”, asks Belafonte at the end of Sing Your Song. First seek out this tale of a true hero and inspiration to millions and see where it takes you.
Review by Mark Byrnes