With a pace and energy that gives an urgency to the political activism central to the restless Harry Belafonte’s remarkable life, Sing Your Song, raspily narrated by Belafonte and produced by his daughter, is classifiable somewhere between self-congratulation for a life bursting at the seams with success, purpose, and involvement in historic moments and a call to action that implicitly asks its viewers by way of inspiration to stand up for injustices in the world. For the 84-year-old Belafonte, the film also works as a persuasive touch-up—and cover-up—job to his recently tarnished public image after he called George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world,” Condoleeza Rice and Colon Powell “house slaves,” and lambasted Herman Cain for being a “false negro,” remarks responsible for his recent lack of invitations to speaking engagements. It’s likely, then, that the film was directed by Susanne Rostock the same way Belfonte’s new memoir, My Song, was written with Vanity Fair’s Michael Shnayerson: to articulate, polish, and edit what the vociferous and at times alarmingly honest Belfonte wants to tell us without injuring his credibility outside of the left any further.
From the get-go, Sing Your Song sets an explosive tone with clips of riots, famine, and war, widening eyes and quickening hearts, making it clear that the entertainer side of Belafonte isn’t what it’s celebrating, but using—literally, as even the film is an extension of Belafonte’s life mission—as a jumping-off point to go into politics. The clips hit fast and hard, like a machine-gun spatter of a huge life’s span: historical moments (first black man to have a romance with a white woman in a movie; first person to sell a million albums), political activism (footage of him with Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby and Robert Kennedy), and more generic images of protest and civil unrest that serve to illustrate Belafonte’s arm-chair remembrances. Though Belafonte was operating from the privileged position of celebrity, the staggering force of his drive to be involved in political activism the world over and make a difference is undeniably motivating. It’s curious then that the film glosses over another of Belafonte’s triumphs of the will: his recovery from pancreatic cancer, which, according to a Los Angeles Times interview, he’s publicly helped men accept as not just an affliction of women, who he originally believed “were somehow socially responsible for their condition.”
And that’s where it’s wise to be wary of the film’s prevailing spell. For as much of a gutsy, liberal hero as Belafonte may be, when you block out all the blaring noise coming from the Belafonte PR machine and focus on his words, he can seem arrogant and selfish. If his liberalism doesn’t seem to extend to women it’s because he seems to see himself as possessing some kind of immunity through the righteousness of being a man, as evidenced in the aforementioned Los Angeles Times interview, where he states, “I just thought myself untouchable. God would not smite me. After all, I was doing good work, I was kind to my neighbors, I raised my children best I could.” If these gripes seem personal rather than about the film, I would say it’s often the knowledge you bring to such convincing hagiographies as Sing Your Song that’s one of your only defenses against them.