Harry Belafonte still has a 'Song' to share
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - At 84, Harry Belafonte walks with a cane and his stately rasp has taken on even more gravel. But the man who pulled himself up from poverty and fashioned a remarkable life as an award-winning actor, singer, and civil rights activist - winning Tony and Grammy awards, selling millions of records on the strength of hits like “Banana Boat Song (Day-O),’’ and working closely with leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. - remains sharp, good-humored, and thoughtful, and continues to work for social justice. We recently had the chance to sit down with Belafonte to discuss his retrospective documentary, “Sing Your Song,’’ premiering on HBO tomorrow at 10 p.m.
Q. What was your initial reaction to the completed film?
A. I wonder what the world will see in this. Will they see what I hope they see or will it just raise questions?
Q. What do you hope viewers see?
A. I want them to see a history that took place and that many of those who participated in that history were more mortal than deity. I want them to see a Dr. King who deeply reflected on where he was going. Did those of us who served our cause do it to the best of our ability? Where did we fail? And were our expectations met? And did we meet expectations? When you’re in history, you don’t have the benefit of the hindsight of your time. And we did things out of great instinct. There was no historical model. There was no blueprint for us to follow. If anybody had said that a great rebellion will emerge from a woman’s feet that hurt her, that sat on a bus in a remote village somewhere in the heart of the most severe racist oppression this country could experience, it would sound almost biblical. But, in fact, that’s what happened. And that strange phenomena led us to a host of other strange phenomena. For a little country preacher 25 years old to step out of his tiny church and, as reluctant as he was in the beginning to participate, to have become the participant that he turned out to be is also biblical.
Q. You worked very hard in both your professional career and in the civil rights movement. But you also experienced many serendipitous turns of event as well. For instance, if you hadn’t been working as a janitor’s assistant on a specific day, you wouldn’t have been given tickets to the American Negro Theatre by a tenant (actress Clarice Taylor, who played Bill Cosby’s mother on “The Cosby Show’’) and found your way to becoming an actor.
A. Serendipity was my closest associate. It offered me many opportunities to make selections that - I don’t know - had it not been so serendipitous, what choices I would have made.
Q. Writing your autobiography “My Song’’ and making this documentary have caused you, no doubt, to reflect on your life in a very concentrated way. Did you notice those serendipitous moments? Did anything surprise you about your own story?
A. Yes, absolutely. I asked myself with great consistency, why did Dr. King call me? Why did Eleanor Roosevelt make it her business that I got in her way? What were the circumstances that led me to start communicating with [Nelson] Mandela when it was my deepest belief that I’d never see him, or see him alive? What was that moment that made me sit in a jazz joint and have the best and the biggest jazz musicians in the world look at me, not only with curiosity, but in a very favorable way? And step to the table to use their influence to get me a gig.
Q. You played with Max Roach!
A. (Whispers with a big grin) Didn’t I! I did more than play with him, we became very good friends.
Q. You admit in the film that your work took a toll on your family, and your children speak very candidly about that. Was that difficult to hear?
A. Very. What I like about it is my children are liberated enough to do that. I think my son said it best in the little snippet in the film: “We lived in the midst of a dilemma. There were two families. There was us and there was the family of man and my father was there running back and forth like a lunatic.’’ Every time I see that I have to laugh. The idea that anybody could describe me as a lunatic . . .
Q. Often films like this are made after the subject has passed away. Luckily, you got to participate.
A. Yes. In some of the interviews when we were looking at the edit I said, “Look we’ve got to go back and fix this, I’m not dead yet!’’ “He was’’ and “He did’’? It ain’t over!
Q. Actor, activist, singer. When the time does come, for which would you chiefly wish to be remembered?
A. I’m mostly concerned about the people whose lives I touched, not the people I don’t know. The ones that I’d like to know that I really made a difference are all the young men and women that I work with at this very moment in New York. . . . Some are just out of prison, some have come from gangs, some are aspiring to be in neither place, and it is they whom I am endowing with everything that I have. I continue to run with them and they keep me buoyant. I am hopeful I will be a [Paul] Robeson to one of them, and that they might emerge to make a difference to their community.
This interview was edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.