Sing Your Song

Sing Your Song

Harry Belafonte singing the blues with inmates in a LA jail, from SING YOUR SONG, an S2BN Films release 2012

Sing Your Song (2011)

Opened: 01/13/2012 Limited

Screening09/02/2011 - 09/08/20117 days
IFC Center01/13/2012 - 02/02/201221 days
Playhouse 701/13/2012 - 01/19/20127 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Twitter

Genre: Music Documentary

Rated: Unrated


Over the past half century, hardly a day has gone by when some clever stranger on the street has not called out, "Day--o!" upon recognizing Harry Belafonte, wherever Belafonte may find himself in the world. He never fails to return a gracious smile. At the heart of these day--o's is a recognition and acknowledgement not only of him, but identification with a shared time and place, a community of shared experience.

In his new biographical documentary, SING YOUR SONG, Belafonte recounts that he was performing at the Village Vanguard in New York City when the great Paul Robeson visited him backstage and offered this counsel: "Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are. And if they want to know who you are, you've gained the first step in bringing truth and insight that might help people get through this rather difficult world." Get them to sing your song and you get them to feel what you feel. Your passion becomes their passion. Such is the power of art.

At the heart of any biographical texts lies the question "Who is he or she?" And while getting to know who Harry Belafonte is, the leitmotif of SING YOUR SONG, the more profound questions the film probes are Who are we, especially as artists?, and What meaning do we find in our work and commitments?

Harry says he never saw himself as a singer, not in comparison to the great vocalists of his day. He's an actor, the proof of which, he jokes, is the fact that he convinced so many people he was a singer. In the theater he found "a place of social truth and profound influence," and it was there that he first made the commitment to use art as an instrument of resistance and rebellion, to counter racist propaganda and to inspire to others. But it was as a singer--the first ever to sell a million records --that he realized the platform and power that art afforded him. As he observes in the film, along with building a career and raising a family, and in the midst of the accolades and successes that came his way, there were always the larger concerns for freedom, justice, equality, and human dignity. Before discovering Paul Robeson--a renaissance man of immense talents, who sacrificed everything in the fight for freedom and justice--there was the indelible imprint of his mother's instruction; he should never awaken in a day when there wasn't something on his agenda that would help set the course for justice. And it is that larger concern at the center of Belafonte's life and work that attracted Paul Robeson as a mentor. It is the gravity of that compassion, passion, and caring that drew Dr. Martin Luther, Jr., into Belafonte's orbit and Belafonte into King's. As Coretta Scott King said, "Harry saw our struggles and made them his own."

Like Robeson, Belafonte has paid the price for his activism. Rather than compromise with bigotry and prejudice, he has walked away from the money and exposure that compromise would have afforded him, as when sponsors of the groundbreaking and hugely popular 1959 television specials, TONIGHT WITH BELAFONTE, balked at his attempts to integrate them. Similar battles with Hollywood film producers over content and race led him to turn down other lucrative offers. Celebrated and recognized with Grammy, Tony, and Emmy awards, he was subsequently blacklisted by Hollywood, harassed by the House Committee on Un--American Activities, spied on by the FBI, and threatened by the Klan, state troopers, and Las Vegas mafia bosses.

As with other Belafonte projects, SING YOUR SONG offers a critique and alternative vision for America. It is also an implicit critique of the uses of contemporary film and television, as it sets in high relief, important issues not being addressed in African American filmmaking today and not explored since EYES ON THE PRIZE aired on public television in 1987 and 1990. In addition to those questions about identity mentioned earlier, there is the question of how deep we are willing to dig into our history and experience. What price are we willing to pay?

SING YOUR SONG is, in a sense, Belafonte's essential song. Like the folk songs in which he feels most at home, the film's subject is the human condition, the struggle against injustice, and our yearning to be free. Like the Jamaican folk of his childhood whom Belafonte first heard cry out, "Day--o!" we're all looking for daylight to come. We all want to go home and to lay our burdens down. But the night of human suffering is long, and at times it seems there are too few with the vision and courage needed to take up the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality on behalf of those whose own cries are too weakened with hunger and want or have been drowned out in the ongoing din of commerce.

"I'll tell you something," Belafonte says against an opening montage of suffering, protests, gang violence, and war. "There are a lot of people out here who are really pissed off." The montage, which integrates scenes from Belafonte's own life, flashes before our eyes with a powerful urgency as the drums call the people to organize. "Somewhere in this moment," he adds, "all that I have known, all that I have felt, all that I have experienced, demand of me to say, What do you do now?" Though he asks the question of himself, we are invited to identify with Belafonte's passion and point of view, to feel what he feels, and to ask of ourselves, What do we do now?

Celebrity and circumstances seem to have conspired to have cameras trained on Harry Belafonte most of his life, documenting every aspect of it from the time he began performing as a young man. Distilled from more than seventy hours of interviews, eye--witness accounts, movie clips, excerpts from FBI files, news, and archival film footage and stills, the 104--minute portrait makes its point quite powerfully, but also hints that there is great depth and more to the story that might yet be excavated from those remaining hours of unedited material.

As was said in CITIZEN KANE, no one word can describe a man's life. Nor can you sum up a man or woman's life in an hour and a half, or two, or three hours. At best, you can convey something of his or her character. SING YOUR SONG does that and more. It also questions identities. One suspects that Belafonte finds his true identity, not in the actor, singer, celebrity, or activist, but outside of himself in something much larger--in our shared humanity or the process of perfecting it. As Yeats wrote, "There are no strangers here." We meet ourselves coming and going. It is in recognizing ourselves in others that we can begin to set the agenda for undermining injustice. And that, ultimately, is what SING YOUR SONG is about.

The Genesis of Sing Your Song

On July 1, 2004, I received the sad news that my friend Marlon Brando had passed away. Although many mourned this loss, my relationship with him made his passing more compelling than just the loss of a friend. American culture had lost one of its great icons, but the global and civil rights movements had lost the passionate spirit of a deeply committed force in the struggle for justice. What was most tragic for me was that, although the world knew much about this remarkable artist, it really knew little about his deep social and political commitment to those who have been called "the wretched of the earth." This aspect of Marlon's life was the deeper bond that connected us. With his passing, his rich story was left untold.

I then began to look at the lives of many others that I knew whose stories were untold. About the differences they had made in the struggle for human rights. There were hundreds of men and women, both the supremely anointed and the simple ordinary people, who played a critical role in the events of the 20th century. Like many others, I had lost friends who shaped history--Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Fanny Lou Hamer, Paul Robeson, Stan Levinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ella Baker--the list goes on and on. There were so many with whom I shared experiences that influenced the fabric of our times. The absence of their stories nagged at me. I felt they needed to be revealed.

Cecilia, the daughter of another silent warrior, my friend Gregory Peck, had just completed a documentary on her father's remarkable life. Coincidental to this was the tugging by my daughter, Gina, to document my own journey. For many years I had resisted prodding by several who felt that I should both write and film my story. The idea as an end--in--itself seemed too self--serving. But I was awakened to the possibilities of making such a commitment by revealing the stories that could be told of and by all those with whom I shared an unending quest for justice.

Although my love for documentaries has always been my premier interest in the cinema art, I did not know too much about the ways of such an undertaking. With Gina's assistance, we plowed the field for information and, with good fortune, came upon Michael Cohl, who not only expressed deep interest but also stepped to the table giving full support for the project. The task then was to go back through the pages of my history, taking a deeper look into the lives of all my friends and fellow rebels. For four years we pursued them, wherever in the world that took us, to get commentary that would validate the peaks and valleys of a very eclectic journey.

The result is the film SING YOUR SONG...the book follows.

-- Harry Belafonte