TV Review - Sing Your Song

It may be my own weird interpretation, but Harry Belanfonte who is the subject and chief interview of this documentary downplays his own achievements. Filmmaker Susanne Rostock talks mainly to Belafonte, family and friends. Belafonte lays out his whole life himself and it's either his humility or his soft-spoken, low voice that makes his accomplishments and high points seem not as great as they actually are.

Belafonte was born in Harlem, New York in 1927, during the Jazz age. He joined the Navy after high school and served in World War II. He returned to New York City where he befriended Sidney Poitier and took acting classes in The New School alongside Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis. He won a Tony Award in 1954. He was already a pop singer. After debuting at the Village Vanguard, a jazz club in lower Manhattan, he signed a recording deal in 1952. His album Calypso became the first LP to sell over a million copies or what the RIAA certifies as platinum.

There is archival footage of Belafonte being presented with RIAA certifications, but the significance of what he accomplished is somehow lost here. Belafonte did a television special called Tonight with Belafonte. It won him an Emmy Award. It's a factoid that Belafonte himself brushes over casually, but the truth is that the Emmy Award in 1960 was one of the first ever given to an African-American.

Belafonte broke down barriers, but that is less important to him and to the filmmaker, as exploring the political activism that has marked his life for the most part. In the 1950s and 1960s, that activism was centered around the Civil Rights Movement. Belafonte worked alongside such men as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Later, he moved into humanitarian work. He helped to raise funds to fight hunger and diseases in Africa. He's most noted for helping to organize the Grammy-winning "We Are the World" song. Through his work in Kenya, Belafonte remarks that he met President Obama's father, though this is brushed over. There is a clip in the movie of Belafonte guest hosting The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. This is also brushed over. There is one interview that remarks at the rarity of black people on television. You'd think there'd be some mention of this monumental hosting gig, but there isn't.

There seems to be an air of humility that doesn't hype all the milestones that Belafonte made. I suppose this is helpful because the filmmakers completely skip over the controversy that came later in Belafonte's life, specifically during the Bush administration. The film does give us an idea of the controversy when Belafonte was on the radar of J. Edgar Hoover, but, from 2002 to 2006, Belafonte made the news several times for comments he made about President George W. Bush and members of his administration like Secretary of State Colin Powell.

With Hoover, there wasn't much media or archival footage to pull, but with Bush there was a lot of media coverage. Yet, none of that exists here. In the grand scheme of things, his Bush comments were a small blip in Belafonte's big life, but, their exclusion is slight evidence that the filmmaker here isn't out to give us a complete picture of Belafonte, just a picture that applauds him.

Nevertheless, the concluding message of the movie is one to embrace. Belafonte's work continues and continues in efforts to reach out to black youths and the criminal justice system that many believe unfairly incarcerates them. The statistics bear that out and instead of attacking the system per se, Belafonte's hope seems simply to speak to the community and try to inspire black youths to do better for themselves.

Belafonte looked to people like Huddie Ledbetter and Paul Robeson for inspiration when he was young. Obviously, music became his instrument for expression as well as enhancement. It may not be through singing "Day-O" or strumming a guitar, but the hope is that black youths find their song, whatever that song may be, and sing it.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated TV14.
Running Time: 1 hr .and 43 mins.
Available on HBO GO.


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