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Belafonte got them to sing his song

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 17, 2011

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Most artists would sound narcissistic and self-aggrandizing if they were to narrate a full-length documentary about themselves and their own achievements. The fact that Harry Belafonte doesn’t in HBO’s “Sing Your Song,’’ the fact that he actually sounds graceful and honest, is just one more way in which he is extraordinary. There’s no false modesty here, just a level-headed look back as Belafonte recalls decades of music, family, and activism, but mostly activism.

“Sing Your Song,’’ which premieres tonight at 10 on HBO, is beautifully directed by Susanne Rostock to be as much about the man as it is about his times. As Belafonte, 84, talks over his life, she illustrates everything he says with compelling clips of his stage, TV, and movie performances, as well as his interactions with world leaders. Belafonte spends a moment on his childhood in Harlem and in his mother’s native Jamaica, and he briefly mentions his three marriages; but most of the movie is filled with footage from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, when he was touring the country or interacting with Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Belafonte talks about the people who changed his life, notably actor-singer-activist Paul Robeson, whose advice is borrowed for the title of the documentary: “Get them to sing your song,’’ Robeson told Belafonte after seeing him perform at the Vanguard in New York, “and they’ll want to know who you are.’’

He pays tribute to Nelson Mandela, whom he brought to the United States after Mandela was freed from prison. He describes hearing Miriam Makeba sing in South Africa, and we see him introducing her to America on “The Ed Sullivan Show.’’ Sidney Poitier enters the story, as do Marlon Brando, John Lewis, Tom Smothers, Diahann Carroll, and Berry Gordy, as Belafonte’s civil rights activities take him into so many corners of our culture.

Some of the most moving material involves Belafonte’s stories of racial bigotry, such as his mistreatment by police in both the South and in Beverly Hills, Calif., in the ’50s and ’60s. He recalls controversy over the fact that the casts of his TV specials were integrated and over the moment Petula Clark touched him during a duet on TV. But his stories of standing up for Native American causes and fighting hunger in Ethiopia are equally moving, as they reveal his tireless need to keep improving the world. Toward the end of the movie, he expresses weariness about how, “at the end, you’re still fighting for what you thought you’d fixed long ago.’’ But then Belafonte is currently trying to fight gang violence and the imprisonment of people of color, lest we think he’s ready to retire.

At one point, his four children talk about the tradeoff their father made, as he devoted more energy to “the family of man,’’ as David Belafonte puts it, than to his family. And yet they all seem to have reached a place of respect for his humanitarianism. And after watching Belafonte act on his beliefs again and again in “Sing Your Song,’’ after listening to the wisdom of experience in his raspy voice as he talks, you understand how they got there.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.