PARK CITY - The legendary Paul Robeson once told a young Harry Belafonte, “Get them to sing your song and they’ll want to know who you are.”
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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