“One person can make a difference, and every person should try” – this statement by John F. Kennedy, whose assassination in 1963 is featured in this documentary, is a good example of the thrust of Belafonte’s decades of activism. Susanne Rostock’s detailed, rousing biographical documentary, which looks at the art and activism of the “King of Calypso” Harry Belafonte, is as much about a changing America as it is about its charismatic and influential protagonist.
Belafonte’s life story is vast and epic, and the scope of this documentary follows suit, swooping over influential periods of American history in some detail without falling into the trap of getting lost in material. Born into extreme poverty in Harlem in 1927, Belafonte went on to live in Jamaica and later in New York, where as a young man he served in the Navy. After receiving two free tickets from work to a show by the American Negro Theater, Belafonte fell in love with acting and crucially, met one of many people who would inspire him along his journey, the award-winning actor and film director Sidney Poitier. Belafonte’s life takes in three marriages, a hugely successful career in acting and music often dominated by taboo-breaking performances, consciousness-raising protests and marches in an increasingly politicised America, the death of friend and fellow activist Martin Luther King, the assassination of J. F. Kennedy, the end of apartheid, and numerous other key historical events, which Belafonte found himself firmly in the middle of.
The pace of the film is fast and exciting, and manages to cover much ground with little obvious strain. The range of footage is absolutely extraordinary. We have news footage from the period, incredible musical performances, photographs from his acting days, and scenes from Belafonte’s film career, from his more famous roles in Carmen Jones (1954) to more obscure ones, such as science-fiction flick The World, the Flesh and The Devil (1959). Talking heads range from Belafonte himself, who narrates a great deal of the film, and his family of children, to his impressive second wife Julie Robinson, a dancer and civil rights activist who was the girlfriend of Belafonte’s friend Marlon Brando, until Brando asked him to take her out on a date as a favour to him; they quickly fell in love and got married. We also hear from Desmond Tutu, and witness exchanges between Belafonte and Nelson Mandela.
Of particular interest are the clips of film and television footage which were deemed ‘problematic’ at the time. A lot of Belafonte’s performances, in particular his series of award-winning variety shows, involved racially mixed dancers and actors, and often incorporated African music and dance in a way that hadn’t been seen before on American television. Though some of these clips can be accessed in sadly grainy quality on Youtube, “Sing Your Song” provides the audience with the chance to observe these key cultural and historical moments on the big screen. One of these is a clip from the controversial film Island in the Sun (1957), which showed the romance between black politico David Boyeur (Belafonte) and an upper class white woman called Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine). One of the most moving pieces of archive for me, was a television moment in 1968, when Belafonte and Petula Clark performed the anti-war song “On the Path of Glory” on her show; during the performance she innocently places her hand on his arm which she holds there throughout. This tender moment was deemed contentious due to “interracial touching”. “Sing Your Song” brings home the shocking prejudice of a world but 50 odd years from where we stand today.
You’d be hard-pressed to produce a bad film when the material is this interesting. However, Rostock has put together a seamless and exciting film, which though it looks at the past, also explores the future of black communities in the US through Belafonte’s outreach work. If I have one criticism, it’s that we don’t get to see more of his later work with young black and Latino communities. Several scenes of Belafonte in his 80’s, showing little to no signs of frailty or weakness, singing gospel with prison inmates are upsettingly short-lived. This is a fabulous documentary about a man and the times that were, and hopefully still are, a-changin’.