Sing Your Song debuts tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on HBO.
Harry Belafonte is a remarkable man, and he’s lived an amazing life. Born in Harlem in 1927, Belafonte and his brother spent much of their childhood in Jamaica, where his immigrant mother sent them to live with his grandmother after his father abandoned the family. As a young man, he was inspired to become an actor after a trip to the American Negro Theater. He became a star as a singer, a career he fell into sideways while trying to support himself during his acting classes. Taught by his mother that he “should never, ever awaken in a day where there wasn’t something in our agenda that would set the course for the undermining of injustice,” he soon began putting his celebrity at the service of political causes. He chose most of these so wisely that his choices now look deceptively easy, just because so many people may fail to appreciate how much courage it once took to oppose things like racial inequality and the apartheid government in South Africa. (These days, he’s devoting much of his time to prison reform and the justice system.) Belafonte has spent just about all of his public career standing for the right things, and he’s done many things that few other people could have done. With Sing Your Song, a documentary that premieres a week after the release of his memoir, My Song, he’s done something that maybe nobody else could do: He’s made himself seem kind of tedious.
Sing Your Song was directed by Susanne Rostock, but it feels as if it had sprouted fully shaped from Belafonte’s temple. He’s both the subject and the narrator; this is his story, told his way. (His daughter, Gina, is listed as one of the producers.) It opens with a long montage of familiar images of horror and societal unrest: hungry children, a woman waist-deep in flood waters, protesters in the streets being subdued by cops in riot gear. What’s this stuff doing here? I guess to show what the inside of Harry Belafonte’s head is like. These are the people who are forever in his thoughts. He feels for them—except maybe for the cops in riot gear, who piss him off, albeit in a respectful, dignified way. And when we first see Belafonte, he’s in his cramped old family apartment, which seems meant to tell us that his social conscience grew out of his own humble, poverty-stricken roots.
He doesn’t tarry there long, though. Soon, he’s describing his rise to show business success and making passing but significant mention of two mentor figures: Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and Paul Robeson. Belafonte never knew Leadbelly personally, but seeing the old man perform at the Village Vanguard fired his interest in blues and other kinds of folk music, simple songs that could be used to connect with the mass audience and convey a message that carried a wallop. Belafonte remembers this as the moment that steered him away from the career he’d started to develop as an apolitical jazz singer, right around the time that he’d decided that he was “not really enjoying it as much as I had hoped I’d be able to.” As for Robeson, the mighty singing life force and political martyr, he passed along the advice that gives this film its title: “Get them to sing your song, and they’ll want to know who you are.”
Wanting to know who Harry Belafonte is may be an honest reaction to his best work, but it’s not a question that this documentary has much interest in answering. Belafonte doesn’t talk about what happened to his family or his experiences growing up, and it feels as if he only mentions his first marriage so that he can accuse J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI of having broken it up with its “mischief.” (His wife Margueritte couldn’t deal with having Men In Black show up on her doorstep to slander her husband as a Commie subversive.) The film’s real purpose seems to be to underline Belafonte’s historical importance as an activist by showing how deeply connected he’s been to his times. This works best when Belafonte is telling stories of his own first-hand experience of racial prejudice while touring a play in the South. Caught innocently trying to use the urinal in a whites-only bathroom, he’s told by a state trooper, “You let go a drop and you’re a dead nigger.” “I guess my urine had better sense than I did,” Belafonte recalls, “because it just backed up.”
Mostly, though, Belafonte is above doing anything so crass as personalizing social injustice by talking about it from his perspective as someone who suffered from it himself. It might make his platitudes distractingly lively. Describing a trip he and Sidney Poitier took to Mississippi during the bloody 1964 Freedom Summer, he assigns Poitier sidekick status, but he also gives him all the funny lines and describes his friend’s nervous anxiety more vividly than any emotions he felt himself. Belafonte doesn’t mind if other people want to ascribe entertaining qualities to him: There’s a clip of Bill Clinton going on about how funny Belafonte can be, and Laugh-In producer George Schlatter addresses the part that Belafonte’s looks played in his rise to stardom when he says that, when Harry hit the stage in front of an audience filled with women, “Forget lingerie, they were throwing body parts.”
But Belafonte himself seems to just want to be known as the guy who gave Martin Luther King a safe haven where he could relax and read up on Gandhi. Once King enters the picture and the late ’60s are in full ferment, Belafonte is stuck describing himself as a footnote to larger lives, Zelig as a calypso heartthrob. In the process, he skims over what might be his most fascinating story, about how he spent some time under the sway of an unscrupulous therapist who persuaded him to take on her husband as his manager. As if that weren’t bad enough, the husband turned out to be working for the FBI, gathering and “analyzing” personal information about celebrities of a “progressive” bent. Years later, Belafonte turned on the TV and saw the husband moderating a panel of civil rights leaders, including Dr. King. This strange interlude has the makings of a movie all by itself—John Guare, if you’re reading this, take a hint—but Belafonte tosses the punchline away with a “funny old world” shrug.
Once the ’60s have dried up, Sing Your Song wobbles around for another half hour, spinning from event to event rather than finding a way to construct a clear narrative shape out of Belafonte’s later career. We see him at an ’80s “ban the bomb” rally in Bonn, Germany, “where 250,000 German students… congregated to raise their voices against the potential of nuclear holocaust”, and singing a version of “Down By The Riverside” with lyrics specially altered for the occasion. (“Gonna tell Mr. Reagan/ Lay down your neutron bomb… ”) Then, as if in reaction to the appearance onstage at Bonn by Buffy Sainte-Marie, the film goes reeling back to the early ’70s, to recount Belafonte’s interest in the cause of the Native Americans, alongside his friend Marlon Brando.
Then it’s back to the ’80s for “We Are The World” and the starving children of Ethiopia, which somehow triggers a flashback to Belafonte’s 1979 appearance on The Muppet Show, where he performed while surrounded by dancing puppets modeled on African masks. At some point in there, Belafonte notes that he has experienced the occasional disappointment, one of the most stinging being the fact that “I could not be present at the anointing of Nelson Mandela” as president of South Africa, because he felt obligated to turn down President Clinton’s request that he be a part of the official U.S. delegation at the inauguration, protesting what he saw as Clinton’s wishy-washiness towards the political turmoil in Haiti. These are the kinds of disappointments you wish you had.
There is another side to Belafonte, and it’s worth remembering and treasuring, even if Belafonte himself would rather not have it brought to the attention of the Nobel Prize Committee. There are only fleeting references to it here, as in dirty-minded George Schlatter’s reminiscences, and a moment toward the end when Belafonte tours a West Coast prison and is addressed by a guitar-playing convict as “the big man himself, Geechy Dan.” This is a reference to Belafonte’s performance in Poitier’s 1974 Uptown Saturday Night, in which he played a gangster and parodied Brando in The Godfather. More than twenty years later, he won the New York Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor for his terrifically low-down performance as a rasping, cutthroat gangster named Seldom Seen in Robert Altman’s Kansas City. That was probably his high point as an actor, something that supposedly means a lot to him, but neither of those films earns a direct mention here. Belafonte would rather commemorate his part in overblown, message-y melodramas such as the 1959 Odds Against Tomorrow, in which he played a musician involved in a heist with a racist, mean bastard played by Robert Ryan. At the end, after many tense, race-baiting exchanges, they get into a shootout while standing atop huge fuel tanks and blow themselves up. One of the cops who cleans up the mess afterwards uses both hands to hold up some charred remains and asks, “Which is which?”
The clips of Belafonte as musical performer also seem selected to drive home the point that he’s no mere entertainer but one who seeks to get his audience’s guard down and then educate them, dammit. There’s something faintly sanctimonious even about Belafonte’s attempt to tie a shift in his career direction to his worries that he was letting his kids down by now spending enough time at home: “I sang songs of humor, songs of play, children’s songs,” he says, sounding very Children’s Television Workshop. (Apparently he was around his kids enough to indoctrinate them in his way of speaking: One of them, dancing around the issue of whether or not she ever felt neglected, says, “In retrospect, I can look back and say, ‘Of course, he was nation-building.’”) Seriously, “songs of humor?” But then, this is a man who can’t say that he saw the smoking young Mirian Makeba in a film and immediately knew that he wanted to meet her without explaining that this was because he immediately knew that she was “the voice of Africa.” In one TV clip, Belafonte introduces John Kennedy and says, “I’m an artist not a politician.” You couldn’t tell it from this documentary. You can’t even tell whether Belafonte knows that an artist is, at the very, very least, just as honorable a vocation.