There was a time when Harry Belafonte was one of the biggest, most revered, and important entertainers in America, and the world. There was no realm of entertainment he had not conquered, and from there he moved into the realm of political activism. He worked side-by-side with Dr. Martin Luther King, and was crucial in recruiting other entertainers in his many political causes. Remember the USA for Africa movement in the 1980s that helped battle famine and resulted in the mega-hit song “We are the World”? Yeah, well, Belafonte was one of the key driving forces in that whole thing. He also was an active and vocal participant in the protest to end apartheid in South Africa. Basically, in addition of dominating the charts and winning awards, Harry Belafonte spent much of his adult life on the front lines in the battles for human rights globally.
Susanne Rostock’s documentary Sing Your Song profiles the life and career of Harry Belafonte, both as an entertainer and as an activist. The result is a fascinating glimpse at an incredible life that is at times a bit too cursory and abbreviated, but nonetheless engaging an inspiring. Belafonte himself hosts and narrates the film, which gives it the personal, autobiographical feel of a memoir captures at 24 frames per second. Rostock and Belafonte start with his childhood, born into poverty in Harlem, New York, and then sent off to live with relatives in poverty in Jamaica. It was during his early adulthood, while working as a janitor in New York, that he discovered the world of theater, which forever set the course of his life from that point forward. Interestingly, parts Belafonte’s narrative is similar to his friend and contemporary, Sidney Poitier, who is one of the many famous faces that pop up throughout Sing Your Song.
Belafonte’s experiences as an entertainer gave him the opportunity to tour America at a time when segregation was still the law of the land in much of the country. This discrimination and inequality galvanized the young performer, transforming him into a human rights activist, which propelled him on to a completely different kind of stage. And this is where Sing Your Songis at its most interesting and compelling. Yes, Belafonte’s recollection of his life in show business is fascinating, but it is when that life intersected with the Civil Rights Movement that his life became something more profound than a bunch of hit records, stage performances, and television appearances. Ultimately, this documentary is as much about an entertainer as it is about America’s struggle with Civil Rights during the second half the twentieth century.
Sing Your Songis at its best when it explores Belafonte’s like as an activist, and as an activist/entertainer. Here is a man who was so popular that he was chosen to interview Senator John Kennedy on television, who marched side-by-side with Dr. King, and who helped bring other celebrities into the Civil Rights Movement. The late Charlton Heston, remembered for his later-in-life conservative ramblings and pro-gun proclamations, was a key player amongst white celebrities recruited by Belafonte, and one of the many people who show up in archival footage. For those not well versed in the history of entertainers-as-activists, seeing actors like Heston, Paul Newman, and Marlon Brando (a close friend and classmate of Belafonte) speaking out for Civil Rights may come as a surprise, but these were some of the famous faces lending credibility to a cause that was being viewed with uncertainty in some parts of America.
If there is any type of significant flaw to be found in Sing Your Song it is that at 104 minutes it runs too short, resulting in some aspects of Belafonte’s life and career to be covered with only the briefest of glimpses. There are so many incredible performances and pieces of archival footage that are only seen as quick snippets, that it is difficult to not come away wanting to see more of Belafonte as an entertainer in action. At the same time, the film is at its best when focusing on the man as an activist, which is where the greatest strengths of the documentary can be found. It would have been nice to have an extra half hour to an hour of both performances and deeper exploration of Belafonte’s political work, but what we are given works just fine. This is a great documentary that is as entertaining as it is enlightening.