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A Piece of His Fire: Harry Belafonte (1927-2023)

“He gave us a piece of his fire so we could help ourselves in a business that did not acknowledge us in a manner that we wish to be acknowledged,” recalled Diahann Carroll. “For those who had no voice & those who seemingly had no hope, [he] made the world a better place,” Quincy Jones shared on Twitter. “He has always raised his voice against the dark. For that, we owe him so much,” explained Sidney Poitier. They were talking about Harry Belafonte, a man who at the height of film career, at the pinnacle of his musical prowess, at the apex of his political voice, would not allow himself to be lesser than. How do you define someone who avoided definition? You do so through his friends. 

Mr. Belafonte had many friends: Poitier, Dandridge, Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Rita Moreno, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Altman, Eli Wallach, Marlon Brando, and more. He had many admirers: Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, and Colin Kaepernick. He inspired many politicians, activists, humanitarians, and artists. He was an Oscar winner of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, a Tony winner, and the first Black man to be awarded an Emmy. He was also an activist, a singer, a gifted actor, a symbol of Black masculinity, a star, and a friend to many. He was, above all, an undaunted revolutionary. Mr. Belafonte died on Tuesday, April 25th. He was 96. 

The first time I saw Mr. Belafonte, he was not his resplendent self: His teeth were rotting, his beard tangled, and he carried a Bible underneath his dusky preacher suit that covered a sweat-stained shirt. There was something nasty, sweaty, and goofy about him. Though I was only ten, I had seen many Westerns before this, from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti turns to John Ford’s stirring Americana landscapes. But I’d never seen one with Black people before. I had never seen two Black men, played here by Sidney Poitier and Mr. Belafonte, outwit a band of white racist gunmen before. There’s a low-angle shot in that scene featuring both actors—Mr. Poitier looking resolute, and Mr. Belafonte looking sinister—that told me we could be something more, something heroic, something on the edge of unbeatable. 

My dad loved Sidney Poitier’s “Buck and the Preacher.” He loved it because of Mr. Belafonte’s unvarnished yet lovable turn as the preacher conman. It was the peak of Mr. Belafonte's brief return to movies after an 11-year hiatus. He would do one more film, Poitier’s “Uptown Saturday Night,” before leaving Hollywood again for another ten years and then returning and leaving again. In that time, he married three times: Marguerite Byrd, Julie Robinson, and his widowed wife, Pamela Frank—and became a father to Gina, David, Adrienne, and Shari Belafonte

Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. was born to Jamaican parents on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York. Both his mother (Scottish and Afro-Jamaican) and his father (African American and Dutch-Jewish) were of mixed race. Early in his childhood, they drifted apart, leading his Uncle Lenny to become a surrogate father figure. In My Song, A Memoir, Mr. Belafonte talks about seeing his Uncle Lenny, a numbers guy, cold cocking a Black cop in a bar. His reaction to his uncle simply stepping over the cop is telling. “No look back—and, unbelievably, no repercussions, probably because the cop was contesting the size of his payoff,” he recalls. The incident probably served as Mr. Belafonte’s first proof that authority can be knocked to the floor. 

By age five, Mr. Belafonte was living in Jamaica with his grandmother in a wood-framed house without electricity and plumbing. He credits the nurturing love from his grandmother—a white woman with blue eyes—with making it easier for him to mediate problems between races and classes during his work for the Civil Rights movement. On the island country of Jamaica, he also developed a fondness for Calypso, the Caribbean music that would launch him to superstardom. He returned to New York City in 1940 to attend high school and enlisted in the Navy during World War II following graduation. The segregation he experienced in the Navy fully awakened him to the racist ills of America. He served for 18 months. After leaving the Navy, his stepfather helped him get a job as a janitor. As a tip from a tenant, he was given two tickets to the American Negro Theater, where he befriended Mr. Poitier. He would later study at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School opposite Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis, actors who would band with him during the March on Washington.

Mr. Belafonte did not initially reach stardom through acting. In 1949, at a New York jazz club called the Royal Roost, Mr. Belafonte watched Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, and Lester Young perform on varying nights. Young eventually persuaded Mr. Belafonte, cash-strapped at the time, to sing. At 21 years old, he performed for the first time at the Royal Rooster, where Al Haig, Tommy Potter, Max Roach, and Charlie Parker served as his backing band. By 1953, he struck big with the album Calypso, a collection of call-and-response folk tunes like "Banana Boat Song" that would spur the record to sell one million copies.

Mr. Belafonte was, of course, a sex symbol. That image took hold with the Calypso album cover. His green shirt is cut halfway down his chest, his skin is luminescent, and his smile is brighter than a sandy beach. Maybe the reason it took him so long to break into film—apart from widespread racism—was his unbridled sensuality. It’s not that Mr. Poitier, his peer who broke into movies three years before Mr. Belafonte’s starring role in 1953’s “Bright Road,” wasn’t attractive. To be palatable for a white moviegoing audience, Mr. Poitier was, for much of his career, a sexless leading man. There was no way, however, to subtract the sex appeal from Mr. Belafonte. 

In the musical “Carmen Jones,” his second film, he stars as an Army Sergeant captivated and frustrated by an intoxicating Dorothy Dandridge. The two are a picture of Black beauty, sensuality, and lust that redefined the idea of a Black film as one filled with color, life, and vitality. A full decade before Mr. Poitier starred in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Belafonte reformulated in "Island in the Sun" what a Black man could do on screen. The scenes between him and Joan Fontaine are loaded with charged erotic and phallic imagery (such as the sharing of coconut juice becoming a metaphorical interracial kiss).

He further pushed interracial barriers opposite Inger Stevens in the post-apocalyptic thriller “The World, the Flesh and the Devil,” whereby he and Stevens are Earth’s sole survivors. Though human society doesn’t exist anymore, the taboo subject of miscegenation—and the arrival of another survivor, played by Mel Ferrer—makes their interracial love difficult to consummate. His teaming opposite Robert Ryan as a racist ex-cop in the heist-noir “Odds Against Tomorrow” is another instance of him exorcizing the prejudice of the 1950s for moviegoing audiences. That film capped a five-year run that saw Mr. Belafonte not only becoming a chart-topping music star but an artist willing to push past censors and boundaries no matter the consequences. 

It’d be easy, in that respect, to compare the arc of Mr. Belafonte’s career to that of Mr. Poitier. Many have done so. Their friendship can be traced back to their time in the American Negro Theater and continued during the Civil Rights Movement, culminating with the March on Washington in 1963. And yet they were philosophically at odds on Black advancement. Mr. Belafonte was inspired by the actor and singer Paul Robeson, a man who willingly sacrificed his career—he was accused of being a Communist during McCarthyism because of his subversiveness—rather than giving up his moral compass. 

Mr. Belafonte took that political ethos over to his film career. He passed on “Porgy and Bess” due to its racial stereotypes and turned down “Lilies of the Field,” the film that netted Mr. Poitier the Academy's Best Actor prize (the first Black man to win the award), because he deemed the idea of a Black man becoming friends with Nazi nuns as idiotic. He left the cinematic landscape because the industry refused to give him the roles he deserved. 

Mr. Belafonte continued raising money for the Civil Rights Movement and organizing events on its behalf, forged connections with Guinea, expanded education in Kenya (a program Barack Obama Sr enrolled in), and hosted the “The Tonight Show” (Nipsey Russell, Leon Bibb, Paul Newman, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr were among his guests). Mr. Belafonte and Mr. Poitier experienced a falling out after disagreeing over the best way to mourn the assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. (particularly whether a protest should be included in the late leader’s funeral).  

While Mr. Belafonte first returned to Hollywood to star in Ján Kadár’s “Angel Levine,” maybe his best role came when he mended fences with Mr. Poitier to star in his friend’s directorial debut “Buck and the Preacher.” The Blaxploitation Western put both men firmly in the driver’s seat, allowing them to command their cinematic destinies and images. It pushed Mr. Poitier to a new, more independent phase in his career. But for Mr. Belafonte, it allowed him to work in a hilarious theatrical register that ran counter to his serious suave appearance of the 1950s. He didn’t have to be elegant; he could transform and contort his screen image. He could be an actor. 

Before long, however, he would leave Hollywood and come back again: First starring in “White Man's Burden” opposite John Travolta before once again shedding his leading man looks in Robert Altman’s “Kansas City” (he previously cameoed in Altman’s “The Player” and “Ready to Wear”). In “Kansas City,” he portrays Seldom Seen, a gangster and numbers runner. As expected for any Altman project, Mr. Belafonte ad-libbed much of his dialogue. In playing a man not too dissimilar from his Uncle Lenny, here, Belafonte taps into the swashbuckling energy that propelled his turn in “Buck and the Preacher.” There’s a scene where Seldom tells a joke about Marcus Garvey as his men beat a former employee behind that is enrapturing: You know violence is occurring in the back, but Mr. Belafonte, his melodious voice that wafts like cigarette smoke in the wind, keeps you sucked into his resplendent aura. He is a ball of violent, opulent, and crazed energy that makes you miss him dearly every second Altman decides to cut away from him. 

Mr. Belafonte made a few more returns to film before the end of his life. The first came in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” “Every time we cross paths, Mr. B. would say, do you have to use Ossie Davis in every film? He always said it playfully, but I knew he was serious,” explained Spike Lee to Deadline. Mr. Belafonte’s scene is pivotal in Lee’s film: He portrays activist Jerome Turner, a version of himself speaking to the younger Black activists. They’re huddled around him as he recalls, in acute detail, the murder and castration of Jesse Washington, an illiterate Black teenager in Waco, Texas, in 1916, spurred by the release of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.” It’s a hushed, haunting scene that conjures his power as elder, recorder, and liver of Black life, Black pain, and Black revolution. 

His last contribution was to Elvis Mitchell’s incisive ode to Blaxploitation, the documentary “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” In it, he recalls being restricted to roles that were beneath him. Rather than take the limitations put on his life, he responds with, “F**k you, I’m going to Paris.” It’s an iconic moment that summarizes the tenacity of not just a singular talent but a singular leader and rebel. 

Mr. Belafonte may be gone, but he has not been silenced. He may be resting, but his image still energizes. His eyes may be closed, but his spirited activism remains open and looking forward. Mr. Belafonte is off to the next stage, where more change may be possible. If anyone gets in his way, I hope he says, “F**k you, I’m Harry Belafonte.” 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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