Sing Your Song
Like many people, documentary filmmaker Susanne Rostock’s first introduction to legendary singer, actor and performer Harry Belafonte was listening to her parents’ Harry Belafonte records. “So many people have this shared memory of having their parents play them Harry Belafonte – he’s so far reaching in that respect,” she says. It was a memory that Rostock had in the back of her mind when she began work on Sing Your Song, a documentary of Belafonte’s political and social activism, an aspect of Belafonte’s life that tends to be downplayed in comparison to his considerable musical and stage successes. “I actually wanted to call this film ‘This Is Not Your Mother’s Harry Belafonte Record’,” Rostock laughs.
As a successful young singer – born and raised in Harlem, New York with a popular profile far broader than many of his African-American contemporaries – Belafonte quickly took a prominent role in the burgeoning civil rights movement, spurred on by politically active artists such as Paul Robeson. The film’s title comes from an instruction offered by Robeson early in Belafonte’s career: “Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are”.
In subsequent years, Belafonte would emerge as an outspoken critic of South Africa’s apartheid regime and the United States Government’s relationship with the regime. In the artistic field, Belafonte pioneered multi-racial television and film projects, including directing his own television show – Tonight With Belafonte – in the late ‘50s, often battling latent prejudices in the entertainment industry as well as the omnipresent gaze of the American government intelligence and law enforcement community.
Rostock concedes that she was only aware relatively later in her life of Belafonte’s political activities. “I actually became aware of Harry’s political activism pretty late in life,” Rostock says. “Although I was quite politically active in my teenage years, a lot of people didn’t know about his politics, even in the black community. I suppose I became aware of Harry’s politics in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” she says. Rostock already knew Belafonte when the singer came to her one day with the concept of a film on his life as a politically active artist. “Harry came to me with all this footage and asked me to help make it into a film,” Rostock says. “Harry had never wanted to make a movie of his life, but then Marlon Brando – who was a very good friend of his – died, and Harry realised that there was so much history that needed to be conveyed.”
With the strong support of Belafonte’s youngest daughter, Gina, also an actress and social activist, Rostock took to the project with vigour, believing that the successes, trials and tribulations of Belafonte would provide hope for younger generations caught in a web of political apathy and economic malaise. “Harry is so inspiring, so I thought the film would provide some hope,” Rostock says. “The film is a very intimate telling of history – you’re really looking into Harry’s journals.”
As a young man, Belafonte marched with civil rights protestors in Alabama; as an octogenarian, Belafonte remains active in contemporary causes such as prison reform and education. While the United States has made great strides since the racially-divided structures of 50 years ago, Rostock says Belafonte knows the journey is far from over. “I think he feels that enough change hasn’t happened yet,” Rostock says. “Harry is a very optimistic man, but he does feel that a lot more could happen. And he’s right. Even in the education system in this country it’s not required to study the civil rights movement at school, which is a terrible thing.”
Like many civil rights activists, Belafonte was subject of government surveillance, much of it orchestrated by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Rostock notes that even now, further evidence of the government’s interest in Belafonte is coming to light. “I recently came across these House Committee on UnAmerican Activities files in the warehouse where Harry’s stuff is kept,” Rostock remarks, although Rostock’s attempts to speak to former federal agents did not come to fruition. “You can’t get anyone to speak about it,” she says. “It’s a very shameful part of this country’s history.”
Despite remaining under covert government surveillance for over a decade, Belafonte’s career flourished. “Harry’s not a bitter person, but there’s still latent anger there about what he was subjected to,” Rostock says. “He was still able to have a career, and he didn’t lose his livelihood. He was so beloved – everybody knew him. But they government didn’t dare mess with him.”
In relation to the entertainment industry, which on one hand continues to fete Belafonte while on the other maintaining the rigid social and racial structures within which the industry had evolved, Rostock says Belafonte remains as focused on change as ever. “I don’t think attitudes have changed a lot in Hollywood,” she says. “How many black films are being made? Harry is still trying to make black films, but there’s still a resistance. It’s marginally better, but given how many years have passed, not a lot has really changed.”
At age 84, Belafonte continues to travel the United States and the world, promoting political causes dear to his heart, with no sign of easing up. “Harry has always said, ‘Artists are the gatekeepers of truth’ – I love that statement,” Rostock says. “Harry spoke at my birthday last year, and he stood up and said, ‘I promise you ten more years’, so I’m holding him to that!” Rostock laughs.
BY PATRICK EMERY
The Long Play season of Sing Your Song screens at ACMI in Melbourne from Saturday April 14 until Sunday 29 April. For program information please visit acmi.net.au