In the course of a year's viewing, I see a relatively small number of documentary films. This is not because documentaries are not better than ever -- they are!, but because not many of them end up being shown on the box. It is a little rare for me to see one in a proper cinema setting, unless it is part of a film festival's basic programme. I do however hoover up virtually all biographical programmes on film stars alive or dead -- although I must confess that most of them are no longer with us.
It was therefore on the cards for me to watch the above documentary on the life and good works of Harry Belafonte, a sprightly 83 when the film was directed two years ago by Susanne Rostock, and still active and involved today. I was of course familiar with his very brief film career in the 1950s, running from his first "Bright Road" in 1953 through "Odds Against Tomorrow" in 1959. There have been the occasional cinema appearances since, but apart from a couple in the early 70s, these have been small and forgettable. Of course I was also aware of his parallel career as a singer and showman, but not being privy to American TV, most of these passed me by. Surprisingly one of his was the first million-selling LP album in the U.S. However, I was far from aware of his third and probably most important career as an activist and fighter, not just for civil rights in America, but against poverty and ignorance throughout the world.
A confidante and close worker with Dr. Martin Luther King, he was not afraid to show his continued support for progress in the deep South. However he also reluctantly began to take an interest in African affairs and soon became absorbed by them. He was largely responsible for the first wave of foreign exchange students from Kenya (which incidentally brought the father of one Barack Obama to the States). At a time when no 'person of colour' was admitted to South Africa, he brought the singer Miriam Makeba to the world's attention and recorded an album with her. He was involved with organizing the "We are the World" disc which raised funds for famine in Africa. Because of his liberal beliefs and do-gooding, his detractors branded him a fellow traveller or a 'puppet of Peking', but this was far from the case. He knew and admired the early black activist and entertainer Paul Robeson, a mighty talent who was more or less ruined with smears regarding his beliefs, who apparently told him 'Sing your song and the world will listen'.
This documentary which opened the Sundance Festival in 2011 draws lavishly on archive material which sits better on the small screen than it would when incorporated in a wide-screen showing. Belafonte's own words are joined by various talking heads both black and white -- Sidney Poitier, Tom Smothers, Marge Champion, Belafonte's children, and so many more. He tried to live his own life as an example of protest against intolerance, ranging from his own experiences when touring in the segregated South through trying to enter the casino hotel where he was appearing in Vegas through the front door. There is a particularly lovely story about his turning up at that hotel's swimming pool and skillfully diving from the high board into the now empty pool, watched by sinister looking thugs on the hotel's balconies; however the pool soon became crowded with parents and their children who wanted their photo taken with the popular performer. He was crucified in the press for holding hands with Petula Clark when he appeared on her television show, but the lady refused to cut this when the broadcasting 'suits' plied on the pressure, unlike his mild protest trio with the Smothers Brothers (making them Tom, Dick, and Harry) where CBS cut out the whole section and inserted a 10-minute election plug for Richard Nixon.
He has lived a good and productive life and is still active in fighting injustice, most recently with protests at the jailing of youngsters, mainly blacks, as a new form of segretation. He appears to say to himself each morning, 'What do you do now?'. I would like to close with a quote which best represents the Belafonte credo: "I believe that my time was a remarkable one. I am aware that we now live in a world overrun by cruelty, and as our earth disintegrates and our spirits numb, we lose moral purpose and creative vision. But still I must believe, as I always have, that our best times lie ahead and in the final analysis, along the way we will be comforted by one another. That is my song". What a remarkable man!