The most exciting moment in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has to be the single-scene appearance of a ninety-one year-old Harry Belafonte. The veteran actor gives the film added context by delivering a monologue about the murder of Jesse Washington in 1916 Texas. In showing how much charisma the performer still retains at his age (and during a retirement that he agreed to interrupt for this one day shoot after his doctor finally permitted it), the scene is so deeply satisfying.
Washington was an illiterate teenager who was coerced into confessing to the murder of a white woman before being turned over to an angry mob, who mutilated him with no interference by the law. He was castrated, his fingers were sold as souvenirs, and photos of his murder were sold as souvenir postcards. This was the America that Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. was born into only eleven years later, far away from Waco on the first day of March in 1927 to Jamaican immigrant parents. His father was a chef and his mother a housekeeper. By the 1950s, he would be one of the country’s most successful entertainers. His songs were everywhere and his movies were hits. However, the America that saw him as a second-class citizen who needed to keep his place was still one he brushed up against regularly. He was therefore inspired to devote his success to social justice causes.
Belafonte’s career under his augmented surname got underway when, after serving in the Navy during World War II, he was working as a janitor’s assistant and was given tickets to attend a play at New York’s American Negro Theatre. There he met fellow actor Sidney Poitier and began attending plays whenever he could afford it, by the end of the forties studying at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School beside such future luminaries as Poitier, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, and Bea Arthur and paying for his classes by singing in nightclubs. By 1954, he was the toast of Broadway, winning a Tony Award for John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, around which time he signed a recording contract with RCA Victor, with whom he stayed until the mid-’70s.
It’s likely that more people know Belafonte’s singing more than his acting. His breakthrough album Calypso was the first million-selling LP by a single artist and is believed to have brought that musical style to an international audience, resting at #1 on the Billboard charts for an impressive 31 weeks and producing one of his signature songs, “Matilda,” while younger generations discover “The Banana Boat Song” by way of Beetlejuice well before most of them ever encounter the three-time Grammy winner in a film. Dissatisfied with the roles he was being offered in the ’60s (he turned down Porgy and Bess because he objected to the musical’s racial stereotyping, and Poitier took the part instead), Belafonte devoted himself more to music. As the Beatles gained ground, his softer charms faded in popularity. (His last album to appear in the Billboard Top 40 was in 1964.) After his last calypso album in 1971, he spent the next two decades focused more on touring and charity work. His career expanded in many other ways, as did his trophy shelves, adding an Emmy (the first for a Jamaican-American, for one of his televised specials), the Kennedy Center Honours, the National Medal of Arts and, completing his EGOT, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar in 2014. His final concert was in 2003, four years before he confirmed his retirement (which was a decade before he showed up in Lee’s film).
The Criterion Channel celebrates Black History Month with a number of relevant collections that include a series of films about reggae, a retrospective of director Melvin Van Peebles, the documentaries of Stanley Nelson and a collection of Belafonte’s films, which acknowledge him as singer, actor, producer and philanthropist. Through his production company HarBel Productions, he guided a number of films to the big screen, some of which are included here, whose topics remind us of the man as activist and key figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Mentored by Paul Robeson and close confidant (and personal financial supporter) of Martin Luther King, Jr., Belafonte survived being blacklisted, financed the 1961 Freedom Rides, helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and in 1964 bankrolled the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Later he helped organize the USA For Africa song “We Are the World”, supported anti-Apartheid and HIV/AIDS campaigns in Africa, was named a Grand Marshal of the New York City Pride Parade, since 1987 has served as a UNICEF Good Will Ambassador and, following his own diagnosis of prostate cancer, became involved in advocacy for that research as well. His vocal criticism of George W. Bush’s presidential administration came with controversial statements about Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, for which he received plenty of blowback. (“I don’t need Harry Belafonte to tell me what it means to be Black”, Rice responded.) Preparing for the day that he was set to shoot his cameo in BlacKkKlansman, Lee was clear with his crew about the importance of Belafonte’s arrival: “When you come to the set tomorrow, I want you to have a suit on, a tie, wear your Sunday best. If you dress lazy, don’t come to work because we have a very special guest.”
The Criterion Channel’s collection is missing a few key ingredients that prevent its being a fully comprehensive look at the man’s life and career, later triumphs such as his New York Film Critics award-winning performance in Robert Altman’s Kansas City should be there (and BlacKkKlansman, while we’re on the subject), and hopefully he will someday get the big-budget documentary devoted to his accomplishments that he so deserves. In the meantime, though, there’s plenty to enjoy in these selections, giving us the unforgettable images of him at the height of his youth and beauty, indulging in the sound of his soothing voice and celebrating the range of power he brought to his performances.
All reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted. Many thanks to Rachel Ho for her generous contribution to this article.
Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger, 1954)
Harry Belafonte was reunited with his Bright Road co-star Dorothy Dandridge for this torrid romantic drama, that sets Bizet’s opera Carmen in World War II with an all-Black cast. The score is Bizet’s with English lyrics courtesy of Oscar Hammerstein, with Dandridge, who became the first African-American performer to receive an Oscar nomination in a leading category, playing the fiery sexpot who works at an umbrella factory and gets hot under the collar for the corporal serving in the army next door. She convinces Belafonte to leave his good girl love interest and chase after her instead, and it isn’t long before his passion has him committing murder and going on the lam. He doesn’t realize that her loyalty is only to herself, and while he holes up in a seedy hotel, she takes up with a prizefighter who covers her in jewels. A studio movie with this big a budget featuring not one white person in the entire cast was a groundbreaking event for its time, although today there are cracks in its legacy, notably the fact that none of the leads sing with their own voices (Dandridge is dubbed by the very white, pre-fame Marilyn Horne) and the music is a bad fit for both the characters and Hammerstein’s awkwardly unflattering lyrics.
Island in the Sun (Robert Rossen, 1957)
Belafonte co-starred with Dandridge for the third and final time in this adaptation of Alec Waugh’s novel. It livens up its exploration of crumbling colonialism with touches of juicy soap opera, in which James Mason is the son of a plantation owner who is offended by Belafonte’s revolutionary aims to free the fictional Caribbean island of Santa Marta from British rule. Belafonte strikes up a romance with an intelligent but apathetic Brit (Joan Fontaine, who received hate mail that she had to turn over to the FBI), his girlfriend Dandridge becomes lovers with a British diplomat. Mason and his sister (Joan Collins, who is twenty-five years younger than him in real life) learn secrets about their family’s past that could change their plans for the future–his to run for office and hers to marry boyfriend Stephen Boyd. There’s a murder thrown in there too, but the film robs the audience of an explosive climax, as if it were afraid to conclude anything about the issues it raises. That’s the only flaw in an otherwise worthy experience whose performances are exciting and the island scenery (actually shot in Barbados and Grenada) is captured with a blistering, colourful beauty by cinematographer Freddie Young.
Beat Street (Stan Lathan, 1984)
Rachel Ho – Before Beat Street’s world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984, audiences were treated to an elaborate breakdancing performance. The idea that hip-hop culture, including breakdancing, was only for the streets of South Bronx, New York City was expelled in one evening: the beauty of the form could be appreciated and enjoyed by a spectrum of people. Directed by Stan Lathan and produced by Belafonte, it follows an aspiring DJ and his friends and family. The film celebrates artforms that were stereotyped and condemned in the ‘80s and, in many ways, still are today. Born and raised in NYC, Belafonte’s desire to bring this story to the fore was to see his own childhood on the screen, and the process of making it was “a labour of love”. Beat Street never quite earned the mainstream credit it deserves. Not only did it put ‘80s hip hop culture on a platform, it also showed the pain and violence of South Bronx, highlighting the fear parents had for their kids’ lives and futures. Beat Street is a raw love letter to the community of South Bronx, and the art that would eventually touch all corners of the world.
Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959)
Rachel Ho – This NYC-based film noir has discussions of race and masculinity that its heist story. Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, and Ed Begley star as a team of cons who come together to rob a bank with $50,000 a piece promised to each. Although Belafonte’s the headliner, Ryan’s Earle Slater is the most intriguing character in the film, a kept man resentful of his girlfriend’s financial success, and whose values and attitudes about race belong to a bygone era. What’s notable about this character is how much he sticks out like a sore thumb — and not just in retrospect. After Slater launches a tired racist insult towards Belafonte’s Johnny Ingram, Begley’s David Burke says firmly to Slater, “I don’t want to hear what your grandpappy thought on the old farm down in Oklahoma! You got it?” Odds Against Tomorrow reflects the (albeit slowly) changing attitudes of the time: not only is Belafonte the lead, even the casual racism (e.g. Slater referring to a young Black girl as a “pickaninny”) is meant to show Slater in a negative light, rather play as an acceptable remark. Alongside the social themes, Odds Against Tomorrow is a banging heist movie. The end sequence in particular is a delight, with Belafonte, Ryan, and Begley firing on all cylinders.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil (Ranald MacDougall, 1959)
Belafonte produced this film the same year he released Odds Against Tomorrow, another intelligent combination of a popular genre with critical social commentary. He plays a mine inspector who is trapped in an underground tunnel during a nuclear holocaust, coming up for air and finding the whole world empty of humans who have all died of radiation poisoning. Making his way to an abandoned New York City, he sets himself up in a swanky apartment building, hooks up a generator and goes slowly mad talking to mannequins until another lone survivor, Inger Stevens, finds him and they become friends. She falls in love with him but he hesitates to give into his feelings. Held back by the thought of reprisals from a society that no longer exists but nevertheless fuels his anger, his fears are confirmed when a third figure enters their lives. It’s a sailor (Mel Ferrer) who believes himself to be the more natural companion for the young lady. Removing the entire context that could impede their relationship, the film tells us that racism is not a natural state but is forced upon us by corrupt communal thinking. It’s an interesting theme to ponder while admiring the effective, surprisingly lighthearted manner in which the film dramatizes the end of the world.
FOR THE CURIOUS ONLY
Bright Road (Gerald Mayer, 1953)
Harry Belafonte only makes a handful of appearances in his film debut, mostly tailored to appeal to fans of his musical stylings as he plays a school principal who loves to strum his guitar in his private moments. The film belongs to Dorothy Dandridge, who gives a great deal of class to a rather dull moral guidance story about a teacher trying to inspire a wayward student. Dandridge is new to the teaching profession and prays to God in voiceover when met with any challenge, the greatest of them a little boy named C.T. who keeps repeating grades because he refuses to apply himself. The school has been doling out discipline, but she knows that he needs love. There’s a sense that the filmmakers are doing their best to combat the audience’s racism by overemphasizing just how wholesome the cast of all-Black characters truly are, which is noble in theory but results in portrayals of happy poverty and disingenuous cultural details.
Uptown Saturday Night (Sidney Poitier, 1974)
Belafonte has tons of fun sending up Marlon Brando’s performance in The Godfather in this silly but very diverting crime caper. Director and star Poitier and Bill Cosby play downtown buddies who splurge on a night at an uptown, off the grid after hours nightclub that gets raided by masked robbers who steal everyone’s jewellery and wallets. The next day, Poitier reads the lottery numbers and realizes his winning ticket is in his stolen wallet, prompting him and Cosby to go to outrageous lengths to get it back, including appealing to a blustery mob boss (Belafonte) to get into a turf war with his arch enemy (Calvin Lockhart) who they know was behind the robbery. A huge hit when first released, prompting no less than two more comedies reuiniting the stars, this is a spirited good time that provides laughs from beginning to end.
The Angel Levine (Jan Kadar, 1970)
Struggling senior citizen Zero Mostel can barely pay for the medicine to take care of his bedridden wife (Ida Kaminska) and isn’t comforted when he comes home to find Belafonte sitting in his kitchen with the news that he’s his guardian angel. Belafonte says that he is there to help the ailing couple but Mostel, who has turned his back on god for all the difficulties that have been visited upon him, continues to resist the message when Kaminska miraculously gets out of bed. Superb performances are the best element of Oscar winner Jan Kadar’s Hollywood debut, but the story isn’t very interesting and the connection that brings the two main characters together is too haphazard and offers few rewards by the end. Gloria Foster, best known as the Oracle in The Matrix, is superb in a supporting role as Belafonte’s frustrated girlfriend.