60 Years of Controversy

Harry Belafonte on President Obama, Herman Cain, Sidney Poitier

Richard Porton talks to Harry Belafonte about contemporary politics and his legacy.

Victoria Will / AP Photo

Long before Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon, and Sean Penn became known as politically engaged celebrities, Harry Belafonte emerged as the entertainer-activist par excellence of his generation. In 1956, at a time when labels such as “world music” and “multiculturalism” were yet to be formulated, Belafonte’s Calypso introduced Caribbean music to mainstream America and became the first LP to sell a million copies. Together with other pioneering African-American actors such as Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr., Belafonte won leading roles in Hollywood productions and, despite the paucity of roles for black actors in the ‘50s and ‘60s, proved particularly memorable in Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954) and Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).

Susanne Rostock’s Sing Your Song, an HBO documentary that will air on Monday, and My Song, a new memoir just published by Knopf, allow one of American popular culture’s most seminal figures to take a retrospective look at his own career. If the HBO film, peppered with tantalizing archival footage, offers a whirlwind tour of the 84-year-old Belafonte’s legacy, My Song’s more than 400 pages allows him to be more reflective. What emerges from both the documentary and the memoir is that, despite Belafonte’s association with iconic ‘60s figures such as the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr., his political consciousness was irrevocably formed by the ferment of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and his admiration for two major figures of that era who eventually became friends: Paul Robeson, the brilliant actor and singer whose leftist views eventually made him a pariah in Cold War America, and Eleanor Roosevelt, whose commitment to civil rights and other social movements positioned her considerably to the left of her more pragmatic husband.

It’s rather astonishing that Belafonte has been speaking his mind and courting controversy for nearly 60 years. When I talked to him by telephone on Wednesday, right-wing talk-show hosts such as Sean Hannity were already up in arms about his claims on HLN’s The Joy Behar Show that Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is a “bad apple” who “knows little about race in America.” Yet, as this interview demonstrates, Belafonte, despite his gift for pungent soundbites, is a thoughtful man whose barbs are often tempered by nuanced observations on art, politics, and race.

You maintain in your memoir that you don’t regard yourself as “an artist who became an activist but an activist who became an artist.” How would you account for this development? Can it be attributed to the fact that your mother took you to political meetings as a child, your experiences with segregation in the Navy, or perhaps a wide variety of life experiences?

There’s nothing that can be left out as a contribution to the choices that I ultimately made during my life’s journey. I was born into poverty. I saw my mother, and others, struggle. I witnessed losses and victories. Given my situation, I developed my own DNA for social justice. As a young kid, I became an activist and handed out leaflets for events that my mother was interested in, I listened to my mother interpret what Franklin Roosevelt said in his Fireside Chats—the promises he made to citizens caught in the Great Depression. Everything I encountered, included volunteering for the Second World War, influenced my final choice to enter the theater. In the theater, I not only found an opportunity to comment on these matters but also discovered that great writers had written about these struggles. When Erwin Piscator opened his Dramatic Workshop and we studied theater, we didn’t study entertainment or learn how to audition for a sitcom. We studied art, we studied subtext and all of the things that enriched us as actors.

Well, very recently, there’s been some controversy swirling around your statements on The Joy Behar Show concerning Herman Cain. Are you perturbed that black conservatives such as Cain and Clarence Thomas receive so much publicity? Your comments on Cain of course recall your assertion in 2002 that Colin Powell “serves his master well.”

I don’t think the black community is monolithic. I don’t think it’s one people of one thought—except when it comes to issues of oppression. Most of the men, and occasionally women, who deny the existence of such history and conditions, using themselves as examples of what others might be, make remarks that are totally erroneous. They imply that the conditions that oppressed people find themselves in are of their own doing and with just a snap of the fingers, and a short prayer to God, all could be changed. That is absolutely not the case. And I think that the people who have most benefited from cheap wages for workers and segregation are those that tend to espouse, from a racial perspective, the kind of sentiments expressed by people like Cain and Colin Powell. And it’s no small wonder that most of them gravitate to the right-wing philosophy of the Republican Party. They are who they are. Besides making an unpleasant noise, they won’t amount to much. Suffice to say that anyone with influence in the Republican Party will, like Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, and Condoleezza Rice, claim that black people are deluded when they talk about oppression and argue that people can magically “overcome” their plight.

Yet you don’t automatically endorse Democratic Party politics. You’ve been quite critical of President Obama and argue that his centrist positions lack empathy for the dispossessed.

Yes, I understand that he fought hard to be head of this nation and we gave him his desire. But it is silly, if not completely uninformed and malicious, to think that certain political expectations from a politically progressive perspective were not blown up to the heights. He inspired enormous expectations when he came on the scene and everyone was lifted up. Harvard graduate, interracial parents, African ancestry, community organizer, a guy who played basketball and hung on the corner. All of these things led us to have very high expectations and it was perhaps foolish of us not to have looked more deeply. But even if we had looked more deeply, he still would have been our choice—based upon who was running against him. Now we come to the moment when he has failed the test. That doesn’t mean he can’t change the mark. But there’s no question that he has a failing grade in the way he’s handled his platform. Absent in the arsenal of possibilities is a moral compass. If that compass was fully engaged, he could have stepped above the political fray and made courageous statements about laws regarding homeland security such as the Patriot Act that are still on our books. He could have stepped to the table and not just have reversed those laws but refused to have them applicable during his administration and instructed the Justice Department to cooperate. He doesn’t need the Congress all the time. There’s something called a bully pulpit. I don’t think he’s used that adequately for the cause of progressive politics.

But I suppose Robert Kennedy, whom you knew well, was an example of a politician who grew in stature. He was originally considered quite conservative, particularly because of his early association with Joseph McCarthy.

Dr. King gave us instructions about Bobby Kennedy: “In that mind resides good; go out and find that man’s moral center and win him to our cause.” At least with Bobby Kennedy you could sit at a table in a room and debate him. Barack Obama has given us no such space. And I think what’s been absent in the nation, beyond Obama’s personal flaws, is an active citizenry. We didn’t have the labor unions or the students with a sense of mission or feisty people from the underclass taking to the streets. History made Kennedy more than Kennedy made history. All the forces behind him—the movement against the war in Vietnam, the women’s movement, the American Indian movement, all that was going on with the black community and the civil-rights movement.

It seems doubtful, however, that Barack Obama would ever be as simplistic as Herman Cain, who told the Occupy Wall Street protesters that they should just “get a job.”

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Well, I would just say to Herman Cain that we’d get a job if there was one to get—we’d get a job if all those jobs weren’t being outsourced to nations where people live lives far more wretched than our own. When the market looks for cheaper labor, it’s talking about exploiting the poor. It’s talking about getting rid of the people who have the audacity to ask for a living wage. Mr. Cain and his people are more of an annoyance than anything else. We wouldn’t take them seriously if they didn’t have their hands so close to the mechanism of governance. We have to be careful in that respect because we don’t want another Bush to get into office.

Young people will probably be shocked by the documentary’s discussion of the uproar that ensued when Petula Clark gently touched you on her NBC special in 1968. A representative from Chrysler, the sponsor, complained vociferously.

Yes, you’re absolutely right. And this was at a time when we had had so much success. It’s not as if it was in the Dark Ages. It was 1968, not 1938! Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King died in that year. This guy, who was named Doyle Lott and handled advertising for the Plymouth-Chrysler division, went ballistic. I had encountered people like him before and chose to say nothing. When Petula Clark gave me encouragement and took the position she did, that was a real act of courage. She had everything to lose and she took on the establishment by insisting that the shot of her touching me stayed. I’ve loved her for that ever since then.

You’ve mentioned that the death of your friend Marlon Brando in 2004 inspired you to produce the HBO documentary since you wanted to preserve your legacy in a way that you felt that Brando neglected to do in his memoir.

I felt that Marlon discussed very little about his work as a social activist—his work in the American Indian Movement and his relationship with Black Panthers and how he went into the most difficult areas of the black experience and tried to make a difference. It’s unfortunate that America doesn’t know that about Marlon and about a lot of its heroes.

You seem especially impressed with Brando’s fondness for black culture.

Yes, he was very comfortable with the black community. He was absolutely insatiable in his love of Afro-Cuban music and jazz. When I was a jazz singer, he came and spent a lot of time hanging out in the clubs. He learned to play the congas and took classes with Katherine Dunham. He had an ease in that part of society that was highly appealing. Whenever I asked him to do something for the movement, he always showed up and never disappointed me. He was a truly good friend.

The Vienna Film Festival is honoring you this month with a retrospective of your films. Looking back, which films are you most satisfied with? I suppose you would include Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (written by blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky) and The World, the Flesh and the Devil.

And of course Robert Altman’s Kansas City. Those are a small group of films that I passionately wanted to do. There were so many films that I wanted to breathe life into and couldn’t. The sum choices of films were quite meager if you look at it as a career. But the choices the Vienna Film Festival made reflect some of the best things I attempted to do. I think Odds Against Tomorrow is the centerpiece of my work in cinema.

It’s well known that you turned down some starring roles, including leads in Porgy and Bess and Lilies of the Field, which Sidney Poitier eventually accepted. Since you thought these roles were demeaning, did you ever discuss these choices with him?

Yes, I discussed it with him. He defended his motives. I held to my thoughts on the subject and we decided to get on with our lives and not dwell on it. It wasn’t a friendship-breaking decision; just a bit of an annoyance. But Sidney did great things. And he was the right person at the right place at the right time to be anointed as the first black force in American popular culture to break open a system that was so tightly closed to us. He should be honored and admired for what he accomplished, even if he had to tip the deck on occasion. That’s OK. We got the best we could hope for.

You write quite lovingly in your book about Paul Robeson and Eleanor Roosevelt, both of whom might be considered your political mentors. Do you think we’re lacking something today in that there aren’t comparable people on the political scene?

There are no people like that today. But I do believe that people like that could exist today; they just haven’t been given a platform to be able to reveal who they are. Every time I’ve asked this sort of question, I say, “Before we knew of Dr. King, who was he, where was he, and at what time in our own experience did he reveal himself as we came to know him?” Certainly, in our millions of citizens—certainly globally in the billions of people that exist on the earth—there must be citizens as good and valiant and true as those who led us before. I’m sure they exist, but they haven’t broken through the walls of resistance. I’m not sure who the young leaders are in the Wall Street resistance. Or in Cairo, Tunisia—or anywhere in the world. I just know there’s a passion and energy, a valiant armada of folks coming to the fore. I think the Tea Party has had its day as far as the noise it makes. There’s a roar coming that’s bigger and more sustainable, even though it doesn’t have the vast resources of Wall Street at its back. It has more than that; it has truth on its side.