Sunday, May 1, 2011

TFF: History Is Alive in 'Sing Your Song'

Harry Belafonte in Africa. Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

was in part the death of Harry Belafonte’s friend and acting workshop classmate, Marlon Brando, that inspired him toward “Sing Your Song.” The documentary was shown at the 10th Annual Tribeca Film Festival Friday night.

“I wanted to talk to these guys who were left while they could still talk,” HB, 84, said of his various colleagues. He made this revelation to journalist Tavis Smiley during a “Tribeca Talks: After the Movie” interview.

Among those contemporaries is Quincy Jones, 78, who received special recognition Thursday at a Tribeca Film Institute Legacy Celebration. Another is Sidney Poitier, 84 and eight days older than HB, the latter pointed out, who will be honored for his life’s work Monday with the 38th Annual Chaplin Award from the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

“Sing Your Song,” a video biography directed by Susanne Rostock and produced by HB's daughter Gina Belafonte, will have a wide release on HBO in the fall. It is a delectable piece of American history and Civil Rights history.

The young and drop-dead gorgeous HB was on the path to super stardom until an encounter with a Southern police chief hastened his transformation into an artist-activist. Soon enough, the activism would dwarf the art (singer, actor, producer), for his conscience would not allow otherwise. A guiding spirit, too, was a directive given him as a boy by his mother: awake each day with a plan in mind to do something about injustice.

Not only is HB handsome, he is humble. It is owing to this humility that the real, true extent of his accomplishments – his role in the Civil Rights Movement, for instance, is known to very few. Of course, he was a point man for Dr. Martin Luther King, but HB helped disciple then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to the cause. Once he journeyed – with SP in tow – to deliver funds to SNCC (Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee) members in Mississippi. It was a risky mission; the wolves eventually appeared at the door but were met with resistance.

A poster from "Sing Your Song." Image from "Sing Your Song" Facebook page.

A question TB put to HB about SP still rankles. Essentially, the talk show host wondered whether HB harbored any resentment toward his friend, whose career went further, presumably because it was not interfered with by a pursuit of justice. The subtext was that SP, too, should have been on the frontline. Woolgathering before speaking, HB said, “In a vineyard, there are many varieties of grapes,” stressing that SP always answered his call. Further, he gave TS to know, that had he concentrated more on his career there are many people whom he would not have met; his life would not be as rich as it is. He would have had far “less fun.”

Many of the Hollywood stars – particularly nonblack ones – participated in the March on Washington at HB’s behest. The likes of Paul Newman, M.Brando (of course), Charlton Heston, Walter Matthau and others. In attendance at a concert before the march were the likes of Tony Bennett and Peter Paul and Mary.

HB’s activism also extended to Africa. Interestingly, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who helped him understand and appreciate the continent’s true place in and importance to human history. Fairly common knowledge is his involvement in the fight against South African apartheid and to free Nelson Mandela.

Not so commonly known is his work in the 60s to help Kenya. He was, for example, instrumental in arranging for a group of young Kenyans to be educated in the United States who were to return to their country to help build it after colonial rule. One of those students was Barack Obama Sr.

The names most closely associated with the “We Are the World” initiative are Michael Jackson and QJ. It was HB, however, who took the idea to QJ and who helped arrange the attendance of the staggering amount of A-list talent in that studio on that fateful day. Once again, he was content to be in the background.

Though “Sing Your Song” is about HB’s contribution to making the world a better place through art and activism, it never comes across as self-congratulatory. Quite the contrary, it is revelatory. How many people know that HB was the first recording artist to have a platinum album (“Calypso”)? Or the first black person to win an Emmy (“Tonight with Belafonte”)?

Harry Belafonte today and a younger version of himself at the start of his career. Photo from Getty Images.

Doubtless, HB has worked harder than most for the cause of justice and peace. How is it then, TS, asked that he is not bitter in this age of assaults on the causes – particularly unions and civil rights – for which he fought so stridently. HB’s response, not surprisingly, was nuanced.

“I really have no time to waste, and bitterness takes away too much valuable energy that can go to fixing problems.” Anger, though, is quite another matter. “Anger,“ HB said, “is good because it helps you find solutions to these problems.”

“Sing Your Song” only loses traction when HB alludes to his three marriages (that latest was to Pamela Frank in 2008). The introduction of these three women, two the mother of HB’s four children, is clumsy and clunky. In one breath, HB is discussing events of the day and in the next he discloses that he has married or divorced.

Thankfully, these events take up very little time in an otherwise stirring, engaging film.

Visit http:// to learn more about the 10th Annual Tribeca Film Festival.

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