Harry Belafonte is a great performer and a great activist. This reverential documentary emphasizes the activism.
B Musical & political documentary
Directed by Suzanne Rostock
My mother was a big Harry Belefonte fan. She loved his singing voice. She very much approved of his political activism. And I suspect she found him very sexy. There were reasons for those tight pants and v-necked shirts.
Director Susanne Rostock clearly likes Belefonte, as well. Her biographical documentary, co-produced by Gina Belafonte and a company called Belafonte Enterprises, makes no attempt to show his warts. The picture celebrates the actor/singer’s talent, and even more, his activism.
Luckily, it’s a life worth celebrating. Born in Harlem and raised partly in Jamaica (the Caribbean Jamaica, not the one in Queens), Harry Belefonte started acting as a young adult. Then he discovered singing, and found fame and fortune with a singing style all his own. But as a black man in post-World War II America, he soon grew disgusted with the segregation that kept him down despite his success–and kept less successful African Americans further down still. He became an outspoken critic of racism and segregation, and soon became an important figure in the civil rights movement, working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King. He’s still an activist today, working to reform gang members and against a legal system all too eager to jail young people of color.
Rostock tells all this in her film–or more precisely, she allows Belefonte to tell it; the subject of this doc is also its narrator. Their picture encourages you to burn with anger at the world’s injustices, and admire those who worked and sacrificed to end those injustices.
But if you come into the theater because you love Belefonte’s music, you’ll be disappointed. You’ll hear bits and pieces of many a great song, but you won’t hear a single one from beginning to end. I understand this is primarily a political biography and not a concert movie, but let’s be honest here. American history is filled with heroes and heroines who devoted their lives to making this a better world, and many of them paid a far greater price for their ideals than did Belefonte. Yet Rostock chose to make this picture about Belefonte. Why? Because he’s a talented and famous singer. Giving us a few complete songs would have resulted in a longer film, but it would have also turned an interesting political polemic into a must-see movie.
I have one more complaint–this one technical. Much of the picture is taken up by old, pre-HD television clips, shot in the old 4×3 aspect ratio. Rather than pillarboxing these images (putting black bars on the side of the screen to maintain the original framing), Rostock chose to fill the entire screen with every shot. Sometimes, she crops the shots vertically–not an ideal choice but a workable one. But other times she stretches the image horizontally, distorting the picture and making everyone look fat—as you can see above.
Rostock and Belefonte have made a flawed documentary that’s still worth seeing. They could have made a much better one.
Sing Your Song opens Friday at the Roxie.