Some might go to see “Sing Your Song” out of nostalgia for a man who captured the hearts of men and women everywhere during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
But this candid movie about singer/actor Harry Belafonte is not as much about Belafonte’s storied entertainment career as it is about his role in the civil rights movements.
If you remember Belafonte from his heyday in the movies, grab someone from a younger generation to see this film. Feeling down? This biographical documentary, which opens at the Pasadena Playhouse 7 Theater Friday (13 January 2012), offers a heavy dose of optimism. If you missed it, see it on HBO throughout February 2012.
Belafonte grew up poor and disadvantaged in Harlem and then was sent to live with his maternal grandmother in Jamaica. He returned to New York to graduate from high school, and after serving in the Navy, returned to New York again, where he worked as an assistant janitor while he studied acting.
Director Susanne Rostock takes us through a quick series of clips from Belafonte’s incredible life before showing him in the present-day — an 84-year-old man walking through the deserted and dilapidated apartment he once lived in before becoming famous. Belafonte has lost his hair and no longer wears his shirts unbuttoned to his belly button, but he still flashes that trademark smile that helped make him rich and famous.
While some civil rights leaders of those times, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Sidney Poitier — both friends of Belafonte — projected solemnity or reserved grace, Belafonte himself won friends and fans with his captivating smoky voice and that dazzling smile.
Over time, Belafonte came to rub shoulders with Poitier, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau and Marlon Brando. Then, in 1953, he starred in the Broadway revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac” with Polly Bergen, Orson Bean and Tina Louise (Ginger, from “Gilligan’s Island” fame), becoming the first black man to win a Tony Award. That same year, Belafonte starred in his first film, “Bright Road,” with Dorothy Dandridge, a pioneering black actress, and a year later he starred in the movie musical “Carmen Jones.”
By this time, Belafonte had a singing contract with RCA, and by 1956, his album, “Calypso,” became the first album to sell 1 million copies. Belafonte, who never really intended to be a singer, eventually met the great Paul Robeson, an actor, recording artist and controversial socialist, who told him, “Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are.”
After that, Belafonte moved into political activism, something that he admits drew him away from his first wife and limited his time with his children. His second wife, dancer Julie Robinson, shared his desire to be involved in social concerns. Nevertheless, their two children, and his two kids from the previous marriage, had to share their dad not just with his work, but with his political activities.
In the early 1960s, Belafonte answered the call from Martin Luther King Jr. to join the movement for racial equality and, among other things, he helped forge alliances with John and Robert Kennedy, as well as a number of stars, including Brando. He helped organize the March on Washington, and just days after MLK’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Belafonte was speaking to the crowds about the glaring inequalities that existed in America.
Of course, that was decades ago — when a dip in a public pool or touching the hand of a white woman on stage was considered a political and possibly dangerous act for any black man, in show business or not. Since then, Belafonte has continued being part of history, helping organize the recording of the Grammy Award-winning song “We Are the World,” serving as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and protesting against apartheid in South Africa, among other activities.
Currently, Belafonte is looking to young people, trying to inspire them by asking, “What do you do now?”
Now, after seeing this film, when I hear Belafonte’s signature songs, I’ll always remember how an assistant janitor heard the call of humanity and became a part of world history.
Originally printed in the Pasadena Weekly. “Sing Your Song” ended its run this week at the Pasadena 7, but will become available on HBO On Demand in February.