Sing Your Song

 

Directed by Susanne Rostock 12A cert, QFT (queensfilmtheatre.com), Belfast, 104 min

Born in Harlem to Martiniquan immigrants in 1927 and raised between New York and Jamaica, Harry Belafonte grew up during the Depression surrounded by unimaginable poverty. He joined the Navy, where he got hooked on the writings of proto-civil rights activist WEB Du Bois.

After the war and back on US soil, Belafonte he was a janitor’s assistant. It wasn’t much but a tenant did once give him complimentary tickets to the American Negro Theatre, a night out that would change the course of his life.

Sure enough, by 1949, he had followed his hero Paul Robeson into music and was finding his voice as a Calypso performer at the Royal Roost jazz club (Charlie Parker provided back-up). Belafonte soon conquered Broadway, then Hollywood (check out the sublime Carmen Jones and Robert Altman’s Kansas City) and scored a monster hit with Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).

Away from the limelight, Belafonte has campaigned for civil rights and remains a prominent anti-war spokesman. His activism is heartfelt, not showy or self- serving, and his various causes coalesce into a fascinating chronicle of American history.

It’s difficult to imagine who the contemporary equivalents might be when we encounter archival excerpts from 1963 featuring Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston all preparing for the march on Washington. In more recent footage, as Belafonte takes to the streets as part of an anti-Iraq War posse, he seems peerless.

Nobody else exudes that much gravitas. At 85, Belafonte is still in possession of a voice that could cause a speeding juggernaut to screech to a halt, roll over and purr like a pussycat.

Forget the Velvet Fog, this is the Velvet Stratosphere. The sound is so comforting and seductive that it softens the blow when we hear troubling recollections like: “As I walked into the men’s room I heard a voice behind me say you let go of a drop you’re a dead nigger. I turned to look and it was a state trooper.”

The title Sing Your Song comes from advice imparted by Paul Robeson: “Get them to sing your song and they’ll want to know who you are.” This stirring film, fashioned by editing suite veteran Susanne Rostock, does justice to the notion.