Harry Belafonte talks Civil Rights, Martin Luther King + being Black in ’60s Hollywood with The Guardian [Video]

The stately Harry Belafonte is a historical force as well as a creative one. Having sung, danced and acted his way into the history book and the hearts and minds of music and movie lovers over the course of a six-decade career, the towering 85-year-old also marched, picketed and debated his way to changing the course of the world as we know it, playing a seminal role in the fight for Civil Rights.

A stunning triple threat, Belafonte stood, and still stands, as an imposing figure, catching the eye with his undeniable looks, but amazing audiences with his ability to entertain; he is truly a man born for the stage. A theatrical soul and spirit. Developing close relationships with several proponents of the nonviolent factions of the Civil Rights Movement, the son of a Martiniquan chef and a housekeeper of Jamaican descent soon became one of the faces of the battle for equality, standing alongside the likes of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Charlton Heston.

An icon, a legend and inspiration, the one-time calypso recording artist has lived through and experienced the tectonic shifts in American culture. Belafonte watched as Reverend King was shot on the balcony of The Lorraine Motel in Memphis. He was 36 when JFK was assassinated in Dallas, 41 when Robert Kenneddy was struck by three bullets in a kitchen passageway of The Ambassador Hotel. He celebrated as Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of ’68, and smiled on with the likes of Joan Baez and Alice Walker at the inauguration of Barack Obama.

The influential performer and activist recounts his experiences and tells the untold story of his life in the critically-acclaimed documentary, Sing Your Song.

The biographical film charts Belafonte’s growth and development, delving into his upbringing and mapping out the trajectory of his career. Directed by Susanne Rostock, the film begins with Belafonte’s birth in Harlem and then embarks on the journey of his life, highlighting his efforts in the quest for civil rights.

In a video interview with The Guardian‘s Sarfraz Manzoor and Cameron Robertson, Belafonte opens up about his life, Sing Your Song, and his book My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race & Defiance. He discusses his friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., his relationship with JFK, and the inhumanity of segregation.

Speaking about his influences and the figures that inspired him to persevere in the face of discrimination, Belafonte explains:

“In Harlem I saw all the heroes: Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald. We all lived in the same place; the poor and the rich. That’s not quite the way today. If it wasn’t for television, we’d hardly know one another.”

“I was befriended. Paul Robeson was the first one. Then came Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois — one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century. These men stood strong and tall in the terms of dealing with human degradation and human pain. They did things about it.

“Then there was a woman named Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the wife of the President of the United States of America. She threw her lot in with us, and was constantly in our community.”

Powerful and impressive as ever, with undiminished gravitas and effervescence, Belafonte explores the culture and atmosphere of his life and times, putting things into perspective and reminding us all of the heroes, heroines and giants of the not-too-distant past.

Watch Mr. Belafonte’s interview below.

Sing Your Song is in UK theatres now. Purchase your copy of My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race & Defiance here.