It would have been enough for Harry Belafonte to break racial barriers as an award-winning actor and musician. Instead, the "king of calypso" and first African American to win an Emmy harnessed his fame and charisma to mobilize support for social justice at home and abroad, in a lifelong endeavor that has been eternally optimistic in the face of what seems like insurmountable suffering.
An upcoming biographical documentary by HBO, Sing Your Song, chronicles Belafonte's groundbreaking career, with a focus on his persistent activism: We watch the young artist throwing himself into the civil rights movement, on the ground with the Freedom Riders, organizing the March on Washington and as a confidant to Martin Luther King Jr.
Next, we're with him on a worldwide campaign against injustice as he spearheads the production of U.S.A. for Africa's We Are the World in 1985, and over the years answers the call of human need in Ethiopia, South Africa, Haiti and Iraq. Back in the U.S., he takes on modern issues of gang violence and the criminal-justice system's treatment of youths.
After decades of dogged work, he muses near the end of Sing Your Song, he has considered a retirement of quiet reflection, but there is still so much work to be done.
At the Washington, D.C., screening of the film, The Root talked with Belafonte, who is now focused on the incarceration of people of color, about the film. He also spoke about the potential of black artists to continue his work, and the next generation of activism.
The Root: What message do you hope people take away from Sing Your Song?
Harry Belafonte: It's a work of art, and we got an enormous amount of input from several wonderful people to make it happen. It tells the story of a century, and it's meant to pass on information to those who are interested in the history of that period and the perspective and human change of the civil rights movement. Its purpose is to instruct and to inspire. We hope people find what we have to say interesting.
TR: You've participated in innumerable marches, protests and demonstrations in your life. What's your take on Occupy Wall Street?
HB: The participants are the direct descendants of the people you'll see in Sing Your Song.
TR: Why don't more of today's black artists use their platforms for social justice the way you have, and how can we encourage them to do so?
HB: I think we have a large harvest of wonderful artists. I think there's much more they could be doing. I hope this inspires them to see what those possibilities are. I hope they'll step out and do it.
TR: What would you like to see them do?
HB: I'd like them to speak out more about our human condition, and inspire people to take charge of their lives and the possibilities of freedom for people.
TR: You've been actively involved in a range of political and social issues for decades. What are the top three issues you'd like to draw attention to today?
HB: First, the criminalization of poverty. We're criminalizing the poor. This country has the largest prison population in the world. Second, I'd like people to pay attention to the fact that we don't have to kill the world in order to rule it. We should stop going to war. Third, we should take a more compassionate approach to the redistribution of wealth in this country.
Sing Your Song will air Monday, Oct. 17, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.
Jeneé Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor for The Root.