Jun 3, 2012

INTERVIEW: Harry Belafonte

My interview with Harry Belafonte for The Daily Telegraph:
'First comes the voice: low and sandy, with a rustle like old parchment, or the crackle you hear on gramophone records. “I’m at the UN,” says the voice, over my cellphone. “We’ve had an emergency meeting that’s run over. I’m very sorry. I’ll be with you in 20 minutes.” As excuses for celebrity lateness go an emergency meeting at the UN to help solve the water shortage in Africa just about passes muster — better, certainly, than “broke my heel,” or “had to fire mom”. Besides, it gives me a chance to snoop around Harry Belafonte’s office suite, located on the 14th floor of Martin Luther King Labor centre just off Broadway — political activism and theatre, Belafonte’s twin muses, fused into one address. The shelves bristle with humanitarian trophies and awards: enough cut-glass plinths, bronze obelisks, plaques and paperweights to start a small foundry. On the coffee table, a yellowing edition of the New York Times from 1969 bearing news of the moon landing. Looking through the window at the ageless ziggurats of midtown Manhattan, I half expect a string section to strike up the opening bars of ‘My Kind of Town’. 
Finally, Belafonte arrives wearing a long woolen coat over a roll-neck sweater and a svelte wrapping of old-world courtesy. “I do hope you’ll forgive me,” he says, taking my hand. He walks with a cane these days, after a stroke two years ago, but otherwise he is in impressive shape, holding himself ramrod straight, all 6 foot of him, topped off with that fabulous brown orb of a head, as provocative as only the baldest heads can be: Like Colonel Kurtz’s, or the prophet Elisha’s, it is not bald so much as bared, like knuckles, or ambition, or soul. Belafonte at 85 gives off the grave affect of an old testament prophet, with the gnarly life force of one of the trees pushing its way, slowly but inexorably, through the sidewalk below. 
“Every day for me is a chess game,” he tells me, his eyes glittering shrewdly. “another day at the board. My mother once said to me, ‘Never go to bed at night knowing there was something you could have done during the day to fight injustice’. I found many ways to beat the enemy at the point of challenge and make sure my pawn was in the right place, and if it wasn’t make sure I had a knight to back it up.” 
The first singer to sell 1 million copies of an album (Calypso in 1956), Belafonte was the first black male sex symbol on movie screens in the still-segregated fifties. He was also the first performer of any stripe to fully grasp and exploit the interface between politics and celebrity, acting as gofer between to a hesitant Kennedy and Dr King; rounding up a celebrity-studded lineup — Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Tony Bennett — for 1963’s March on Washington; and persuading Sidney Poitier to accompany him on a morale-boosting mission to Greenwood, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964, arriving in dead of night to find the headlights of the Klan lighting up the airstrip. After dinner in Greenwood’s black district with a hall-full of civil rights volunteers, Belafonte belted out Day-O. Even the Klansman standing guard outside joined in. 
The knight riding to his rescue, always, was his audience. Belafonte used to keep a close eye on them, their number and enthusiasm levels, to see if the game was up, whether they had his back or not. In the 1950s it was still a lynchable offence in certain parts of America for black man to so much as look at a white woman, and there was Belafonte on TV, this tall, handsome mixed-race dreamboat, shirt open almost to the navel, singing about his girl in Kingston town in a sweet, dulcet croon: he cut through the water cannons and barricades to score a direct hit on the nation’s limbic system. “Harry was like Valentino,” raved Bob Dylan. 
“The shirt being open was a matter of convenience,” says Belafonte now. “I couldn’t afford a wardrobe. I thought that Pete Segar looked pretty good and Woody Guthrie looked pretty good, so I thought: I can afford a crisp clean shirt every night.” Seeing how women reacted to his ballads, he began to seek out film roles in which he played opposite white leading women: 1957’s Islands in the Sun, in which he played a young black politician who romances Joan Fontaine; or 1959’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil, production of which was shut down when the studio bosses saw the chemistry between Belafonte and Swedish actress Inger Stevens. He was the white man’s fear of black sexuality given devilish form. 
“It boils down to this simple fact. I’m a black man standing on a stage in front of a large white audience somewhere in middle-America. And I sing a song that emotionally touches you and it’s a song of love and you’re a woman and you’re sitting looking at me. What happens to your prejudiced sensibilities, what happens to your culture, what happens when I invade that sacred ground?” He pauses, then adds, “the sexual thing was not without its distractions. I grew up in a very dysfunctional family. I swore to myself I would never be caught in that when my turn came. When I saw the same patterns beginning to repeat themselves, I began to get out of sorts. It was a big part of what drew me into psychoanalysis.” 
The son of a Jamaican cleaning lady and a ship’s cook, Belafonte has never forgotten what it was to live four or five families squeezed into a few rooms in Harlem, the smell of Caribbean food cooking, his father drunk, yelling, beating his wife and son until his hands were bloody. His struggle with his father’s legacy has been the subterranean fight of his life, running through his own womanizing, gambling addiction and two marriages — he is now on this third, to photographer Pamela Frank — like lettering through rock. It’s no coincidence that one of his favorite film roles is his turn as a gangster in Robert Altman’s 1996 Kansas City. “I realized I could play mean,” he writes in his 2011 memoir My Song. “I just had to summon that old hard streak, the one that had pulled me out of poverty.” 
For many years that was enough, he thought. He put food on the table, and a roof over the heads of his four children, by two different marriages, while he jetted around the world to fight the good fight on behalf of his “other family,” as he puts it — the “family of man” — making up for long absences from with armloads of gifts. “I was always sure that everybody had a great birthday party, gifts and stuff, but the needs of children are infinitely greater and more sensitive to daily stuff that I didn’t pay attention to,” he says. “Now I watch my children raise their children and I see all the things they do for them that I never did for them and I understand the grievousness of it, the gravity of it.” Psychoanalysis has helped him greatly, he says, to “fill the spaces where I was transient, or delinquent, or just plain shit… I’ve tried to live a life that was not considered sexist, or womanizing and all that stuff. I don’t know how well I did but I gave it a try. I’m still working at it.” Halfway through out interview, Belafonte takes a call on his cellphone. “Hello? Fine but why are you calling? Did I sleep with you last night?” Pause. “Miss Tyson, forgive me,” he says flashing me a conspiratorial grin. “How are you? What’s up?” It is the actress Cecily Tyson. The old devil dies hard. 
There is an edge to Belafonte, even now. The last few decades have seen his transformation into a one-stop-shop humanitarian multi-tasker, picking up causes as he goes — recording We Are the World to combat African hunger, raising money for the children of Rwanda, visiting Hugo Chavez to get up the nose of the Bush administration — but I wonder if he ever misses the bad old days. Their energy, their focus. “It’s been a nightmare without them,” he says, laughing. Initially enthused by the election of Obama, he has subsequently turned into one of the president’s harshest critics. “Dr King once said that politics without morality is tyranny. I don’t see his moral centre. I can’t find his moral line. I don’t understand his passion, outside of perpetuating the system and making sure that his time at bat he didn’t default.” 
He doesn’t see any starlets at the barricades any more, either. “Where are the artists today who will step into the breach and dare to make that kind of call? Dare to show that kind of concern, display that kind of courage? They just don’t hang out quite the same way we did, the whole bunch of us. Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman. We all came from different places, but it made for a helluva game. Bono corralled everyone recently pretty well. Contribute to the red cross, help feed the hungry — these are all good things. You get to go home and say you’ve done enough. A soft game, we would call it. We were sitting here ducking bullets.” But the interview must draw to a close. Another call has come through, this time from the South African Ambassador.'


  1. This was terrific, Tom, up to the greatness of your subject and beautifully written as always.

    And speaking of him being one of Obama's harshest critics (if I may here,)I love the story he tells about when he and the president briefly shook hands after a speech or something, and Obama said good naturedly, "When are you and Cornell West going to cut me some slack?" To which Belafonte said dead seriously, "What makes you think we haven't?" Perfect!

  2. I should add... he (like me) is not anti-Obama, this was just his way of trying to get the Prez to get tougher.

  3. That's the impression I got: tough love. The similarity between the two men was remarkable: absent fathers, brought up by mother, away from mainland America for the bulk of their childhood (Jamaica, Hawaii), where they have a much happier experience of race, before returning to America and feeling the bite