Director: Susanne Rostock
Cast: Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier
Running Time: 104 min
Release Date: 20 July
Sing Your Song would seem to present itself as a straightforward documentary: a rehashing of biographical material that may have slipped under the radar. It narrates the life, times and travails of legendary calypso singer Harry Belafonte. Over the course of its modest runtime, the film encapsulates not only his biography, but also layers the ambiguous duplicity that exists between the arts and social activism.
The audience is carefully led through the formative years of Belafonte’s life. From Harlem to Jamaica and back, Belafonte narrates his troubled and poverty stricken youth. Moving from janitor to jazz singer, his careful diction and laissez-faire orations combat the intricacies of coming to terms with race in 1940s and 50s America. At various pivotal points in the story, it is shown how Belafonte came to be a leading figure in the civil rights movement. Through animated stills and vaguely contextual stock footage, the documentary form is almost paid homage in itself. Certainly, if there was a criticism of this film at all, it would be misunderstanding tribute for cliché.
Upon throwing himself into the arena of civil rights activism, Belafonte’s story takes on yet another double life. Through heartfelt, yet objective interviews with his children and ex-wives, the audience is shown how their subject was forever torn between time spent on the front lines of the SNCC, Africa and civil rights marches, and time not spent with his family. This conflict resonates through comparisons with his celebrity career as a singer and musician. It is quickly clear how one career fell away from the other, as Belafonte navigates a path deeper into the trenches of civil and social action. He interviews JFK and Bobby Kennedy, and was a close friend and adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. His résumé speaks volumes to even the uninformed, and film buffs will find his direct involvement in the build up to the events that inspired Alan Parker’s 1988 Mississippi Burning of particular interest.
Once again, the documentary format is given a breath of fresh air as it takes on a life bigger than its subject matter. As Belafonte’s career as an entertainer takes a back seat to his activism, the film move from direct biographical narration to wide-angle, all encompassing social critique. Belafonte becomes the orator of contemporary issues, again forgetting his role as celebrity, but reaffirming his place as an artist of humanism.
While at times lost in crowded montages of theme and event, Sing Your Song reveals the painful beauty and emotional paralysis of over six decades of highly involved, dedicated, and perpetual activism. Belafonte simultaneously symbolises the celebration of what has been achieved and the lament of what has still to be done. Heartfelt, joyous, sorrowful and resolute, Sing Your Song is a film as surprising and evocative as its star.