Harry Belafonte's Life Song

The Hollywood icon talks about Obama’s lost moral compass, Brando’s civil-rights work, his new memoir My Song, and documentary Sing Your Song, airing Monday on HBO. By Allison Samuels.

10.17.11 2:21 AM ET

Age hasn’t mellowed Harry Belafonte in the least. The iconic actor-singer was never one to bite his tongue about the social issues and injustices facing the country, and he sees no reason to begin now.  In fact now is the perfect time for Belafonte to have his say, as the 84-year-old opens up about his storied career and more in the new HBO documentary, Sing Your Song, and new book, My Song. Each project chronicles the life of a man who rose to stardom in the 1950s as actor, sex symbol, and calypso singer, and later evolved into one of the most influential minds of the civil-rights movement. 

While Belafonte enjoys discussing his eventful days working in Hollywood alongside the likes of Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier, he truly relishes sharing the stories about his days as a social activist and his continued work for social progress around the world. The entertainer says he sees no separation between his career as an actor and his career as man fighting for equality because they are one and the same.

“I was an activist before I was an actor,’’ says Belafonte. “I was aware of all happening around me that was wrong in the midst of getting into this career. All of us did during those times, and we couldn’t sit back and worry about the consequences of doing something. We had to speak out about what was wrong in this country, and we did.’’

Belafonte was one of the organizers of the March on Washington in 1963 and continued to be a vocal and visible supporter of the work advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His activism expanded over the years to speaking out against social injustices in Haiti, South Africa, and other embattled nations.

During his journey and in his career, Belafonte met and befriended a slew of famous people who would become lifelong friends. His bond with Marlon Brando would span nearly 40 years and ended only with Brando’s death in 2004. The passing of the acting giant was the true catalyst for Belafonte’s urge to put together a detailed history of social contributions from Brando and others over the years.

“Marlon did so much for the civil-rights movement and Native Americans and so many others issues that he never talked about, and so people never knew,’’ says Belafonte. “I felt strongly that people needed to know the depth of concern and compassion we all had during that time and allow that information to hopefully influence this new group of famous faces to do the same. Some are involved but not enough—and these are desperate times. We can’t just sit by and watch.’’

Sing Your Song, gained its title from a conversation Belafonte had with actor Paul Robeson, who encouraged the young singer to let his talent tell his story. After digging up hundreds of hours of historical footage from the '50s and '60s and beyond, Belafonte connected with filmmaker Suzanne Rostock, and the two worked to create a powerful look back in time. Belafonte’s signature husky voice narrates each moment with graceful reverence to the time and importance of events. He uses humor to recall swimming in a “whites only’’ pool in Vegas during the '50s, before proudly describing a celebratory concert, after the triumphant Selma civil-rights marches that featured Tony Bennett and Peter, Paul, and Mary.

“A documentary could only tell so much, and I had a lot to tell,’’ says Belafonte. “I’d resisted writing a book for years because I felt it reeked of arrogance. There’s already far too much of that now among famous faces. Who would want to hear from me or want to hear what I had to say after all these years? ‘’

He had a change of heart when he realized the documentary simply wouldn’t be enough, and began writing his memoir to fill in the blanks. After years of delay, Belafonte acknowledges that both the documentary, which debuts Monday on HBO, and the book, My Song, couldn’t have arrived at a better time in history.  With the country in an uproar over increasing unemployment, poverty, and health care, Belafonte’s resumé makes him particularly qualified to weigh in on the politics of the day.  He has taken the moment to do just that. Last week, he called GOP frontrunner Herman Cain a “false negro” and despite Cain’s continued rise in the polls, continues to dismiss him and his campaign for president.

“Any man who can say that poor people are poor and it’s their own fault is not a man to be trusted,” says Belafonte. “A man who feels people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps isn’t someone who needs to lead. Some people don’t even have boots to put on. So what is he talking about.’’

Belafonte’s current assessment of President Obama’s time in office isn’t much kinder. The actor was an early supporter of the nation’s first African-American president, but has since lost that appreciation. As a good friend of both King and Bobby Kennedy, Belafonte has an idea of what leadership is and what it should be—based on very high standards. Standards he’s clear Obama hasn’t met yet.

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“I think he’s lost his moral compass,’’ says Belafonte. “I saw a lot of the same qualities that I saw in Bobby and Martin in Barack in the beginning. But I think he’s allowed the opposition to get the better of him. I think he thought it would be different and that it wouldn’t be such a huge fight for every issue. He lost some of his fight, and that’s how he lost his moral compass. He has to get that back if he wants to be the type of leader that’s remembered for real change.’’

Belafonte is hopeful Obama can turn that corner, particularly in light of the recent protests over Wall Street and the continuing outcry for more attention to the plight of the poor.

“I always tell people that President Kennedy didn’t make history, history made Kennedy,’’ says Belafonte. “The social issues of that day, like civil rights, Vietnam and the women’s movement, forced Kennedy to be a leader, and a strong one. He had no other choice. The same will happen to Obama. The issues facing the country will force him to get back on track and regain his moral compass to fight hard for those who are suffering. He has all the smarts and ability to get the job done. He just has to do it.’’