By John C. Alsedek:
It’s odd and unfortunate how artists working in any medium can be pigeonholed by one successful performance or creation. As a kid, I only knew Sammy Davis Jr. for "The Candyman Can," missing out on decades of amazing work as a singer, dancer, actor, and musician. The same applies to the great Harry Belafonte. He became known as "The King of Calypso" in the 1950s for his hit "Banana Boat Song." But there is so, so much more to Belafonte’s life—both as a performer and a as human being—than singing “Daylight come and me wanna go home” . . .
The child of a Scottish-Jamaican mother and an Afro-Jamaican father, Belafonte was born in Harlem but spent much of his childhood living with one of his grandmothers in Jamaica. Returning to New York City as a teenager, he attended George Washington High School and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After his discharge, Belafonte worked as a janitor’s assistant; it was during this time that he saw a performance at the American Negro Theater and fell in love with acting. This was also when he befriended a struggling young actor named Sidney Poitier; the duo would regularly purchase a single seat at plays, switching out between acts and updating each other about the progress of the plot.
By 1949, Belafonte had gone from admiration to participation, as he enrolled in classes at The New York School’s Dramatic Workshop, learning alongside fellow WWII veterans and future stars such as Poitier, Tony Curtis, Rod Steiger, Walter Matthau, and Bea Arthur. Within a few years, his acting career was soaring, as he won a Tony Award for John Murray Anderson’s Almanac and starred in the film adaptation of Carmen Jones, both in 1954.
Meanwhile, his music career was growing in parallel to his success in acting. Belafonte originally began singing in clubs to finance his acting classes (his very first gig saw him backed by the great Charlie Parker and his band!), but he soon earned himself a recording contract—first with Roost in 1949 and then with RCA Victor in 1953. It was with RCA Victor that he had his smash hit album Calypso in 1956; it was #1 on the U.S. charts for 31 weeks and sold over one million copies within a year. Fueled by the wild popularity of the album, including the single "Banana Boat Song" (which went all the way to #5 on the pop charts), the United States caught calypso fever.
By the time Calypso started its slide out of the U.S. charts, Belafonte was back in the public eye with a trio of films that touched on racial issues. The first was Island in the Sun, a 20th Century Fox production that drew its title from a Belafonte song. With a strong cast including James Mason, Michael Rennie, Dorothy Dandridge, and Joan Fontaine, Island in the Sun was the sixth-highest-grossing film of 1957; however, the film’s portrayal of interracial romances led to issues in the South, including actual death threats sent to Fontaine. MGM decided to take the interracial romance theme even further with the 1959 science fiction film The World, the Flesh and the Devil, which concerned a trio of post-apocalyptic survivors in New York City and the racial/sexual tensions between them. With a cast of just three (Belafonte, Swedish-born Inger Stevens, and Mel Ferrer) and a plotline that came across as perhaps a little heavy-handed, The World, the Flesh and the Devil didn’t have the success of Island in the Sun, actually losing over a half-million dollars.
Inger Stevens & Harry Belafonte, The World, the Flesh and the Devil
But it was in the third of the three films that Belafonte got to do it the way he truly wanted to. Produced by his own HarBel production company, the film noir Odds Against Tomorrow is a taut, racially charged bank heist film with a strong message. Directed by the legendary Robert Wise, the screenplay was penned by Abraham Polonsky, who at the time was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (the name of a Black novelist friend of Belafonte’s was used as the credited screenwriter). But the driving force behind Odds Against Tomorrow is the conflict between Belafonte’s Johnny Ingram and tough, deeply bigoted ex-con Earle Slater, played by Robert Ryan (in real life, Ryan was an ardent civil rights supporter).
Odds Against Tomorrow was applauded by critics but largely ignored by the general public, and it would spell an end of sorts to Belafonte’s film career. Not entirely, of course: he would continue to do projects that truly interested him, such as Buck and the Preacher (where he co-starred with old friend Sidney Poitier), White Man’s Burden (an alternate history story with John Travolta), and BlacKkKlansman. And he continued his music career, eventually recording over three dozen albums and winning three Grammys. But as the sixties began, Belafonte devoted the majority of his efforts toward real-life issues, both political and humanitarian.
The causes and peoples worldwide that Belafonte has supported over the past fifty years are legion, starting with his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and later the Anti-Apartheid Movement. In 1985, he was one of the organizers for the Grammy-winning song "We Are the World," dedicated to raising relief funds for Africa. In 1987, Belafonte became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and also traveled to Senegal, where he served as the chairman for the International Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children. He has also done extensive educational and charitable works in Rwanda, Kenya, and South Africa.
In more recent years, Belafonte has also been an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy, especially the Iraq War. His anti-U.S. imperialism stance has put him at very public loggerheads with the likes of President George W. Bush (whom he on more than one occasion referred to as a "terrorist"), Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, and Condoleeza Rice, to the point where Clinton snubbed him at an award show where they were both featured, and Rice castigated him on national television. Belafonte backed Bernie Sanders in his 2016 presidential run and currently serves as a Fellow at The Sanders Institute.
Unfortunately, his The World, the Flesh and the Devil co-star Inger Stevens never got to see what Belafonte went on to become later in life. I’ll be talking about her career and tragic, far-too-early end next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.