Sundance Review: 'Sing Your Song' highlights Harry Belafonte's life as a crusader
As the documentary “Sing Your Song” shows, it was advice well taken. Belafonte may be best known by the casual fan for popularizing the calypso tune, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” but he has raised his voice for far greater things. For close to 60 years, Belafonte has traveled the world over as a civil rights leader and connector: he helped bring Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys together. He coordinated Nelson Mandela’s first U.S. appearance after the South African leader was freed from Robben Island.
The 83-year old Belafonte was born in Harlem, but sent to Jamaica as a young boy to be raised by relatives. There, he learned the songs of the peasants and workers, and later made many of the tunes famous as the Calypso King. The Tony-winning actor was touring the south in 1952 with a show called “Three for Tonight” when he first encountered prejudice. A state trooper threatened to kill him if he used the bathroom designated for non-blacks. That awakened a passion in him already stirred by his mother who told him as a boy to “never let a day go by without doing something to undermine injustice.” Each personal slight against him, such as when he was headlining the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas, yet was not allowed to come through the front door or eat in the main dining room, fueled his burning desire to help change the world for those who have no voice.
Utilizing an astonishing array of archival tape (and new footage), “Sing Your Song,” reserves roughly 80% of its 103 minutes to Belafonte’s humanitarian work. Filmmaker Susanne Rostock crafts together a loving, yet never fawning, story of a life lived in service of the world.
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In the movie, it seems as if Belafonte was involved in virtually every major civil rights milestone-- and there’s the video to prove that he , indeed, often was. Whether he’s endorsing JFK for president, and therefore, helping deliver the black vote or speaking truth to power and criticizing JFK and Robert Kennedy for not coming aboard MLK’s platform fast enough or the pivotal 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, Belafonte is there. And he uses his influence to get his fellow actors, including Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston, to march as well. (In fact, the film goes out of its way to point out how many of Belafonte’s white colleagues supported him and stood their ground, risking harm to their careers. For example, Petula Clark innocently placed her hand on his arm during a 1968 television taping and she resolutely refused to record it again when the network insisted she do so without touching him. Tony Bennett, Anthony Perkins and Shelley Winters joined him for a concert following the march from Selma to Montgomery).
Time and again, Belafonte is like a fireman rushing into a burning building that everyone else is running the other way to escape. When civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were found murdered in Mississippi in 1964 after attempting to register blacks to vote, he and Sidney Portier went to Klan-infested Greenwood, Miss. Four days after MLK’s murder, he’s back on the stump, taking up the cause of union workers.
He expanded far beyond civil rights for blacks, taking up the cause of Native American in the ‘70s. In the ‘80s, we follow Belafonte to Ethiopia as he surveys the ravages of the famine. “I made it my business to go where those who struggle” are, he says. He was the driving force behind U.S.A. for Africa’s “We Are the World.” In the ‘90s, he goes to Haiti, in the 2000s, Iraq.
Belafonte would take his message to wherever he felt it would be heard, including “The Muppet Show.”
Though there are some talking heads judiciously placed throughout the story, including Portier, Belafonte family members and assorted others, Rostock wisely lets Belafonte tell his own story.
And it’s not without its sorrows. His four children admit they often lost him to “the family of man,” as his son David says. In a staggering story, the FBI, who was spying on Belafonte, was able to convince his first wife that Belafonte’s activities were, in fact, nefarious and could lead to the overthrow of the government. His second marriage grew apart and ended, due, in no small part, to his time spent on the front lines, fighting for justice.
Though the movie does not dwell on this and it would have been interesting to hear more about what impact his political stance had on his career. Furthermore, twice Belafonte expresses his dismay that “at the end, you’re still fighting for what you thought you’d fixed long ago.” The movie glances over his disenchantment, momentary as it may be, instead of addressing how he dealt with those times when the struggle seemed more than he can bear.
As much as Rostock has decided to tell Belafonte’s story, she also wisely knows she is telling the history of the civil rights movement and she never loses sight of the bigger picture. In that way, “Sing Your Song” should be mandatory viewing in schools as part of a history curriculum. It’s a strong piece that not only shines brightly on the Belafonte—who continues to fight the good fight and how now taken up the issues of incarceration of people of color—but serves as a deeply inspirational call to action to all of us.