PARK CITY - One of the most stirring documentaries making the rounds at the Sundance Film Festival this year is “Sing Your Song,” a film about the life of Harry Belafonte. While the movie traces his musical career, its focus is his life-long role as a civil rights leader and humanitarian and as someone who has never feared speaking truth to power. It shows him walking side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr., gently chiding the Kennedys for dragging their feet in supporting civil rights, rebuking Bill Clinton for his actions in Haiti, and celebrating Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
His actions have come at a cost: the FBI spied on him relentlessly and ultimately broke up his first marriage. He’s been chased by the Ku Klux Klan and threatened many times.
We got a chance to talk with Belafonte at Sundance in one of the few interviews he conducted. We also spoke with his daughter, Gina, who co-produced “Sing Your Song,” and the film’s director, Susanne Rostock. They said they are fielding many offers for the picture and they’d like for it to have a theatrical as well as television run, but ultimately, their goal is to have the movie used as a teaching tool in schools about the Civil Rights movement and power of the individual to make a difference. As Gina Belafonte says, “We want it to be everywhere.”
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Below is our Q&A with Harry Belafonte, who, as he always has, speaks his mind, whether it is about the artists of today or what he thinks of Barack Obama. Read our review of the film here.
As you were narrating “Sing Your Song,” you’re telling story after story about the FBI spying on you or headlining the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas, but not being able to go through the front door, and yet you had no rancor in your voice. How did you move past that anger over the things that were happening to you and you saw others experience?
First of all, the result of all of what you’re saying is if there had been rancor, you wouldn’t want to talk to me. And I was around people who had much more on the line than I could have ever had or imagined and they had no rancor. If Dr. King has no rancor, if Mandela has no rancor, if Eleanor Roosevelt has no rancor, what’s your problem? I learned from these forces that asked me to become part of their mission and I saw what an open heart and a gentle word and a patience can do and I gotta tell you, it’s really paid off. It wasn’t calculated, it was just a fact of experience.
You said in the documentary that you have great sadness that so many of today’s artists have capitulated their power. Why do you think that is?
Because I don’t think they truly understand and I don’t think they’ve seen and understood the power they really possess. They believe the only way to play the game is the way they’re playing it because they don’t know where the bigger reward resides. The power of [the] artist is to show life as it is and to show life as it should be and they have capitulated the power to do both. Why? I think it’s because of all the other things that plague America. We’ve all capitulated, not just the artists. I think all citizens have somehow capitulated to the belief that that which is rolling over us is not fixable and think the sooner we realize that [isn’t true], the better we’ll be.
Give me your assessment of Pres. Obama and where you feel we are right now.
I’m very proud that he’s in office, but that’s about it. What I now understand is without us being completely active and engaged and taking charge, he will not move. This happened before. John Kennedy became John Kennedy because of the Civil Rights Movement. History made John Kennedy more than John Kennedy made history with the peace movement of the time, the civil rights movement, what young people did. When we got active, the president stepped into the space and did what he had to do. So did Johnson and I think the same thing is necessary for Barack Obama.
If he doesn’t have an active society, if he doesn’t have an active Black community, if he doesn’t have an active Native American community, if he doesn’t have an active women’s community, he doesn’t have to do anything but duck bullets from the opposition. And he should stop ducking and we should start rallying around him and give him things to work with. If I gave him things to work with and he failed, I can attack him.
You’re 83. You talked in the film about how you wish in some ways you could retire and reflect, but there’s so much more to do. The movie ends with your taking on our prison system and the tremendously high rate of incarceration, especially for men of color. You say “incarceration is the new slavery.” It that what’s keeping you up at night?
Yes. The prisoners and what can I do the next day to override this problem and get on course and just do it. I said it in the picture: I just can’t let them win.