For the better part of a century, he has walked the walk--literally, like marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. He has talked the talk, speaking truth to power. But most importantly, he has sung the song--songs of injustice and ignorance, and also songs of inspiration and unbridled joy.
"Get them to sing your song, and they will want to know who you are," Belafonte recalled being told by Paul Robeson, legendary actor and activist.
Sing Your Song is a new, electrically charged documentary that will be shown at The Flicks on Sunday, April 22, with part of the evening's proceeds benefitting the Idaho Black History Museum and the Idaho Peace Coalition. The screening's timing couldn't be better (or possibly worse). While the nation is tangled in a racially divided debate over the murder of Trayvon Martin, the black youth gunned down by a neighborhood watchman, in Idaho, Boise Democratic Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb recently reported that she had received an anonymous letter containing a KKK application. (Buckner-Webb will lead a post-screening discussion of Sing Your Song at The Flicks.) The Belafonte biopic is not only highly relevant, it also chronicles 85 years of one of America's greatest, most under-appreciated entertainers.
"I was born into poverty, grew up in poverty, and for a long time, poverty was all I thought I would know," the singer remembered.
Born in Harlem, N.Y., Belafonte spent his formative years in Jamaica, toiling in the banana and sugar cane fields alongside his impoverished relatives. The island nation was where Belafonte first heard the songs of peasants that he would soon turn into popular songs of an American generation: "Day-o. Daylight come and me wan' go home."
Belafonte's calypso albums busted the music charts and Americans clamored for more. And Belafonte was, if anything, prolific. He introduced American audiences to new jazz standards, African folk ballads and in 1962, he employed an unknown musician to play back-up harmonica: Bob Dylan. Belafonte sang in New York's hottest nightclubs, won Broadway's Tony Award for Best Actor and starred in major Hollywood films like Carmen Jones and Island In the Sun.
I still recall, decades ago, watching Belafonte's silky voice and snake-like hips piercing through a grainy, black -and-white television set in 1963. The image of a black man cradling a national television audience in his hand was unprecedented. There had never been anything quite like him, and Sing Your Song reminds us that there still isn't.
"I was amazed at how, when I look back on Belafonte's life, how expertly he used his craft to move people," said Mark Masarik, of the Idaho Peace Coalition. "He always seemed to inspire his audience note-perfect."
Belafonte's artistic triumphs were legion, but when we consider his political activism, his is the ultimate measure of a man. His life paralleled the most important political themes of four generations--from the Jim Crow South to the Soweto ghettos of South Africa, from the White House to impoverished African villages--Belafonte has been there. And for one evening at The Flicks, his life will be here.