Harry Belafonte Sang His Song

Harry Belafonte in Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954)

Preparing for the final day of principal photography on BlacKkKlansman (2018), the story of a Black detective infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in 1972, Spike Lee told his crew “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.” In three takes shot back-to-back over the course of a single day, ninety-one-year-old Harry Belafonte nailed it. Seated in a wicker chair as if on a throne and surrounded by attentive young activists, Belafonte’s Jerome Turner, a real-life veteran of the civil rights movement, recalls witnessing the lynching of his friend, seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington, in Waco, Texas, in the summer of 1916.

A crowd of more than ten thousand onlookers cheered as Washington was castrated, doused in oil, and strung up over a bonfire. Photos were later sold as postcards. Turner tells his appalled but rapt audience that the crowd had been emboldened by a movie released the year before, The Birth of a Nation, and Lee intercuts Turner’s monologue with a KKK initiation ceremony taking place across town and climaxing with a screening of D. W. Griffith’s notorious epic. The set-up is almost too neat, so the sequence depends entirely on Belafonte’s ability to capture and hold our attention. “The courage, the weight, and the levity of Mr. B brought it home,” Lee told Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr.

“Not the most dynamic or distinctive actor or singer or dancer you’ll ever come across,” writes Wesley Morris in his appreciation of Belafonte in the New York Times. “Yet the cool, frank, charismatic, seemingly indefatigable cat who died on Tuesday, at ninety-six, had something else, something as crucial. He was, in his way, a people person. He understood how to reach, teach, and challenge them, how to keep them honest, how to dedicate his fame to a politics of accountability, more tenaciously than any star of the civil rights era or in its wake.”

Born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in Harlem to mixed-race parents, young Harry spent eight years of his boyhood living with his grandmother in Jamaica, where he absorbed the Caribbean rhythms that later became his signature sound. Back in New York, he dropped out of high school, joined the Navy, and then returned to Harlem to work as a janitor’s assistant. As payment for a household chore, a woman gave him tickets to a show at the American Negro Theater.

Belafonte was won over immediately, volunteered at the theater, and his understudy for one of the first roles he landed became a lifelong friend: Sidney Poitier. “Not only were they the same age,” wrote New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow in 2017, “they were both born to parents of West Indian heritage, enabling them to see the absurdity of racism in America from within and without and to bring a quasi-Pan-African sensibility to the African-American experience.”

At the New School for Social Research, Belafonte studied acting alongside Marlon Brando, Bea Arthur, and Walter Matthau, but he struggled to make ends meet. Saxophonist Lester Young suggested singing, and when Belafonte showed up for his first gig, he was surprised to discover that his backup band included Charlie Parker and Max Roach. Time’s Andrew R. Chow notes that Belafonte’s “repertoire was eclectic: jazz standards, chain gang chants, calypso, and folk songs, many of which he found while combing through Alan Lomax’s field recordings at the Library of Congress. While his material was diverse, the quality of his performances was uniformly electric.”

Belafonte was soon singing at top venues around the country, and his first single, “Matilda,” was a smash hit in 1953, the year he appeared in his first feature. In Gerald Mayer’s Bright Road, Belafonte plays a school principal who teams up with an idealistic teacher to help out a struggling student. Dorothy Dandridge played the teacher, and Otto Preminger cast the pair in Carmen Jones the following year. Drawing from Oscar Hammerstein’s musical, Georges Bizet’s opera, and Prosper Mérimée’s novella, Carmen Jones was a lavish early venture into CinemaScope. “The production was notoriously tempestuous,” writes Jason Bailey in the New York Times, “but Belafonte couldn’t have asked for a project more suited to his talents: The picture gave him the opportunity to emote and smolder in equal measure as the young soldier Joe, proving that this was no mere pop singer moonlighting in movies. This was the work of a full-fledged film star.”

Belafonte’s stardom blazed even brighter when his third album, Calypso (1956), shot to number one on the Billboard charts and stayed there for thirty-one weeks. But the mere “suggestion of a romance,” as Peter Keepnews puts it in the New York Times, between the Black union leader he played in Robert Rossen’s Island in the Sun (1957) and the white widow played by Joan Fontaine “generated outrage in the South; a bill was even introduced in the South Carolina Legislature that would have fined any theater showing the film.”

For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “perhaps Belafonte’s strangest but most distinctive role came in the 1959 post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy The World, the Flesh and the Devil.” Belafonte plays a trapped miner who digs his way to the surface only to discover that humanity has been wiped out by a radioactive cloud. Searching for survivors, he finds one, a white woman—and then another, a white man. “And so,” writes Bradshaw, “Belafonte finds himself in a rather daring political what-if movie: an apocalypse is the only way to make acceptable the idea of interracial love, and yet even here racism and white male paranoia rears its head. Making this the scenario for sexual rivalry is somehow inspired although the resolution is a little tame.”

The film was the first to be coproduced by Belafonte’s newly founded company, HarBel Productions. The second was Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), a noir directed by Robert Wise. Belafonte hired blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky to adapt William P. McGivern’s novel about a botched heist, and he put together an impressive cast: Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, Ed Begley, Gloria Grahame, and as a nightclub entertainer with a gambling habit, himself.

For the Chicago Tribune in 2009, Nina Metz spoke with Belafonte, who described the film “as ‘pushing the envelope,’ including a brief scene wherein a henchman blatantly flirts with Belafonte. ‘I loved it, and I said, well, it’s not central to the plot, but it’s certainly tasty in terms of the kind of spices we want to have in the film.’” Belafonte “considers the film ‘like my first-born,’ but it’s certainly one of his lesser-known pictures: ‘I’m surprised how many people have sought it out on their own and have come to give it a sort of cult following.’”

Odds Against Tomorrow was the last film Belafonte made before taking a decade-long break from the movies. Writing for the Notebook in 2020, Christina Newland suggested that the “calculation behind Belafonte’s choices—partly because of his Blackness and what it meant for his career when he began, and partly because of his willingness to bow out of film stardom altogether rather than do something he didn’t believe in—makes him feel like a curious case in the world of the male movie star. He treated Hollywood, as he put it, like he was waging ‘guerrilla warfare: you move in, take your moment, and get out before it kills you.’”

As Tambay Obenson notes at IndieWire, when Belafonte was a young man, “he devoured the writings of civil rights activist W. E. B. DuBois.” Singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson, who became a mentor, told Belafonte: “Get them to sing your song, and they’ll know who you are.” Robeson “had been my first great formative influence; you might say he gave me my backbone,” wrote Belafonte in his 2011 memoir, My Song. Martin Luther King Jr. “was the second; he nourished my soul.”

Belafonte supported King’s family, contributed to the 1961 Freedom Rides, and in 1964, flew with Sidney Poitier to Mississippi with $70,000 stuffed in a doctor’s bag to fund the movement. The two were chased by armed Klansmen and, as Joan Walsh notes in a fascinating 2017 piece for the Nation about the week in 1968 that Belafonte spent as Johnny Carson’s replacement on the Tonight Show, Belafonte and Poitier “almost didn’t make it out of the South alive. He and Poitier would later joke about the adventure when they met on air. ‘Don’t ever call me again,’ Poitier quipped.”

Belafonte returned to the screen on his own terms, producing and starring in The Angel Levine (1970), an adaptation of a short story by Bernard Malamud about a Jewish tailor (Zero Mostel) visited by a man who claims to be his guardian angel. Directed by Ján Kadár (The Shop on Main Street), the film was cowritten by Bill Gunn and Ronald Ribman. “This kind of material can easily veer into either the maudlin or the blasphemous,” writes Jason Bailey, “but Belafonte’s playful yet practical performance achieves the perfect balance of winking wit and gentle lesson-learning.”

Joseph Sargent was hired to direct Belafonte and Poitier in Buck and the Preacher (1972), a Black western costarring Ruby Dee. But Poitier fired Sargent and took over to direct his first feature. Poitier’s Buck “isn’t too far removed from most of the roles that had made the actor into Hollywood’s foremost Black leading man,” writes Aisha Harris in the essay accompanying our release. “For Belafonte, the role of Rutherford, the ‘preacher,’ was more of a stretch.” Belafonte “dirtied up his matinee-idol looks with matted hair and yellowed teeth, and he plays the preacher loosely and comically.”

Belafonte then played a short-tempered gangster in Poitier’s comedic follow-up, Uptown Saturday Night (1974), and another gangster, Seldom Seen, in Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996). In the New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote that the film’s “strongest dramatic moments belong to Belafonte, who has shucked off his characteristically dignified image to dive headlong into the role of a fatalistic, cocaine-sniffing mobster who dispenses street justice with a relentless viciousness. Dissipated and imperious, speaking in a raspy drawl, Seldom is a grim capitalist philosopher who knows that his days are numbered. A follower of Marcus Garvey, he nurses an abiding hatred for white people, whom he recognizes as his nemesis.”

Talking to the Guardian’s Alex Needham, Steve McQueen notes that he and Belafonte “had plans to make a film about Robeson and we worked on it for a little while, but some things don’t always come together. The last time I heard from Harry was when I got a text from him and his wife Pam saying that they’d just watched Small Axe: ‘Brilliant, bravo, we send our love and thoughts through these crazy times, Pam and Harry.’ A child of the West Indies growing up in America and reaching the heights of international stardom. That was Harry. I loved him very, very much.”

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