What to watch tonight: HBO's Harry Belafonte documentary, Sing Your Song
To most younger people, Harry Belafonte is probably the cranky old guy in the background of the We are the World sessions and various lefty protests.
But HBO’s lovingly-produced film puts some backstory on that tale, tracing how Belafonte rose from being an impossibly handsome African American pop singer and stage performer in the 1950s and 1960s to becoming a powerful artist who could balance appearances on Ed Sullivan with marches beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In an era where interracial couples and ethnic culture are regular elements of television shows, it is hard to imagine a time when a film could be scuttled because a black man holds a white woman's hand during part of the action. But Belafonte, the Harlem-born son of a Jamaican immigrant mother, saw all that and more in his lifelong struggle to oppose racism and economic injustice throughout the world.
Raised in Jamaica, Belafonte fell in love with theater at an early age, landing in acting classes with Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando after serving in World War II. Winning a Tony award in his first Broadway appearance, Belafonte saw his 1956 hit record Calypso turn him into the first artist to sell 1-million copies of an album, on the strength of the hit single "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)".
Inspired by legendary vocalist and activist Paul Robeson, Belafonte used his fame and position to challenge the rules which kept white and black performers from appearing together. He also brought John F. Kennedy together with King, pulling the Democratic leader into the civil rights struggle, and organized historic anti-segregation efforts with Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier.
HBO's documentary knits together more than 700 interviews to track the course of his amazing public life, from Quincy Jones and the late Coretta Scott King to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Belafonte's children. As you might expect, the documentary does go easy on criticisms of the performer, briefly referencing his concerns about letting his showbiz career and activism take him away from his children, barely noting his divorce from his first wife and second marriage to a much younger woman.
Still, by the time he becomes the driving force behind We Are the World in the 1980s, this icon (now 84 years old) already had seemed to live three lives worth of activism and achievement.
For anyone interested in the intersection between activism, celebrity, show business and government -- at a time of the most social change we've seen in modern America -- this is a must see. Ti-Vo for sure.