Harry Belafonte’s Never-Ending Rebellion

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Odds Against Tomorrow

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Working in Hollywood in the 1950s and ‘60s, the actor Sidney Poitier had faith that he could affect change from within the system of a racist film industry. His friend Harry Belafonte did not have that faith. Nor, to hear him put it, did he have the patience or even the slightest inclination to test his lack of faith, which he considered, one can infer, too well-earned. 

In an interview conducted only a couple of years ago for Elvis Mitchell’s 2022 Netflix documentary Is That Black Enough For You??, Belafonte — who had achieved a stellar, albeit initially small-scale, reputation as a singer before getting steered into movies in the early 1950s — lays out his situation in no uncertain terms. “I’m not going to do anything other than what I think is worthy of being done. And fortunately for me I was a runaway success in the world at large, because I had a globe so passionately approving of my presence in their midst that nobody could dismiss the fact that that thing on the horizon called Belafonte could really not be fucked with. Because anytime anybody came up to me and gave me an ultimatum, I said, ‘Fuck you. I’m going to Paris.’ I’ll probably live there if I like. But I have a destination that answers your denial of what I could be.” 

Every film that features the thing called Belafonte on screen is noteworthy for that very reason. The artist and activist, who died today at age 96, is never less than an electric presence in any of his films, their overall quality sometimes notwithstanding. But his career as a film performer was steered by his anti-racist principles, and those principles didn’t allow for any pussy-footing. 

While he never criticized the choices that helped make his dear friend and collaborator Sidney Poitier a megastar in the 1960s, he was mercilessly astute in his observations of how Hollywood cast him. Looking at 1963’s Lilies of the Field, in which Poitier comes to the aid of a helpless group of immigrant nuns — “Nazi nuns,” Belafonte amusingly calls them in Mitchell’s movie — Belafonte notes, “He was Sidney Poitier playing a Black person in an all-white movie.” Belafonte, by contrast, was heavily invested — one might even say hell-bent — on playing Black persons as they existed in the actual world, the actual America. Hence, the 1959 crime picture Odds Against Tomorrow, which Belafonte’s company, HarBel Productions, put together. “The fact that I was given the opportunity to make that film really meant a lot to me,” Belafonte says in Mitchell’s documentary.

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, Robert Ryan, Harry Belafonte, Ed Begley, Shelley Winters, 1959
Photo: Everett Collection

It remains a startling picture to this day. Belafonte plays Johnny Ingram, a nightclub vibist and degenerate gambler whose debts compel him to get involved with a heist in which he’s partnered with a virulently racist ex-cop played with chilling credibility by Robert Ryan (a committed anti-racist in real life). The movie combines the all-fall-down fatalism of the best noir with an unsparing race parable, while maintaining a high suspense level. It never feels preachy. Belafonte used what clout he had to hire an African-American screenwriter, Nelson Gidding, to collaborate on the script with the blacklisted Abe Polonsky (who was credited under the name John O. Killens). John Lewis, of the Modern Jazz Quartet, wrote the score, and the Quartet performed it. The spread and range of the talent was Belafonte’s idea of equity, and it was a good one. 

In films prior to that, even those with the best intentions, the impossibly good-looking Belafonte found himself objectified to some degree. 

Take 1954’s Carmen Jones, an adaptation of an all-Black musical based on Bizet’s opera, in which Belafonte played Joe, the doomed soldier besotted by Dorothy Dandridge’s title character. As sympathetic and progressive as he was — and I do not think there was another white filmmaker working in Hollywood at the time who did as much for Black artists — director Otto Preminger nonetheless lacked the imagination to expand Carmen Jones beyond its operatic trappings to the extent that Belafonte and Dandridge would be permitted to actually sing in the piece. Belafonte’s part was sung by LaVern Hutcherson, Dandridge’s by Marilyn Horne. But that wasn’t the only thing that made the picture less than the definitive milestone it ought to have been. As James Baldwin observed in Notes of a Native Son, the movie’s utterly segregated milieu means it has “nothing, really, to do with Negroes” and underscores a “sterile and distressing eroticism.” Similarly, 1957’s Island In The Sun, also co-starring Dandridge, places these stars in interracial romances that are arguably sensationalized. 1959’s The World, The Flesh, And The Devil, in which Belafonte played the last Black man on Earth — because nuclear apocalypse, you know — was both pointed and on the nose. So after Odds Against Tomorrow, Belafonte said goodbye to movies and concentrated on his singing career. 

To Mitchell, that made him “The Muhammad Ali of the film world.” That is, the best there ever was, deliberately taking himself out of the game, on account of (again) principle. 

So if you’re looking at Belafonte’s iMDB page and are a little startled to see that the international star has about three times the number of soundtrack credits than he does acting credits, that’s why. After Odds, he did not appear in another picture for eleven years. He spent his time touring the world singing. Much of his time in the States was spent marching for civil rights. Of the parts he turned down, he told Mitchell, “There is not one that I regret not doing.”

UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, 1974
Sidney Poitier (L) and Harry Belafonte (R) in 1974’s Uptown Saturday Night.
Photo: Everett Collection

His comeback picture was 1970’s The Angel Levine, a charming and pointed fable directed by Eastern European maestro Jan Kadar (making his U.S. debut) from a script partially written by groundbreaking Black filmmaker Bill Gunn. He was directed by Poitier in two rollicking comedies, Buck and the Preacher, a Western, and Uptown Saturday Night. In the latter he played a character who, like the one in Odds Against Tomorrow, is wound way too tight (albeit not without justification). Only here it’s for hilarious effect. The whole cast of that picture is a Black Comedy Hall of Fame: Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, and, yeah, Bill Cosby. Belafonte doesn’t appear even slightly intimidated. Because why would he be. 

After that, he quietly but definitively dropped out of movie appearances yet again. This time for almost two decades. Intrigued by hip-hop, he worked behind the scenes with producers Albert Baker on the soundtrack to Beat Street. Aside from that, the only Belafonte content in Hollywood pictures came in the form of the calypso songs with which he became a famous singer. As used, extensively, in the 1988 Tim Burton horror comedy Beetlejuice, a movie with no substantive connection to calypso in particular or Black culture in general. 

KANSAS CITY, Harry Belafonte, Miranda Richardson, 1996
Harry Belafonte in Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996).
Photo: Everett Collection

He made a cameo in Robert Altman’s The Player, as himself, in 1991. He did the same in 1994 in Altman’s Ready To Wear. And in 1996 he gave Altman a full-blown characterization in Kansas City, an underseen and underrated picture that may be Altman’s last masterpiece. The movie was something of a homecoming for Altman, who was raised in the title metropolis, a birthplace for both jazz and a particular strain of American racism. In this ruthless period piece about haves and have-nots of all races, Belafonte plays a KC gangster named Seldom Seen, a shadow power of seething indignation. “We’re gonna take care of my reputation, my business, my name,” he muses at one point. Late in the movie, he says to callow wannabe gangster Johnny O’Hara (Dermot Mulroney), “You got guts.” The obsequious O’Hara says, “Now they’re yours.” The way Seldom Seen makes good on that declaration is startling. Dan Callahan, the author of several books on American screen acting and actors, calls Belafonte’s work here “one of the greatest performances ever given by any actor.” I agree. 

In his final film, Spike Lee’s 2018 BlacKKKlansman, Belafonte plays a character named Jerome Turner, but he might as well be playing himself. He speaks to an activist group about the D.W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation, and how its release sparked fires of virulent, Klan-reviving racism throughout the United States. The scene, intercut with one of a Klan initiation ritual, is one of the most chilling things either Lee or Belafonte committed to film. 

He never stopped saying exactly what was on his mind. Sometimes he spoke as if from the precipice of lost hope. “How do you end racism in the midst of a place that is so morally collapsed? How do you end poverty in a place so spiritually poor? How do you end hunger in a place so driven by such greed and avarice?”

His speech on accepting the AMPAS Jean Herscholt Humanitarian Award, in 2014, contained an unsparing recap of the white film industry’s insidious practices. Here he made one of the points he’d reiterate in Spike Lee’s movie, about Birth. He continued stepping through American film history: “Hollywood brought abundant opportunity for Black children in their Harlem theaters to cheer Tarzan and boo Africans.” (In that same speech, he once again demonstrated how funny he could be, giving a shout out to a member of the audience: “My friend — my elderly friend — Sidney Poitier.”) 

And he wasn’t sheepish on those occasions that he changed his mind. He campaigned for Bill Clinton strictly because he believed George H.W. Bush had to go; not too long after that, he concluded that Clinton was “morally weak.” 

We should mourn his passing even while being, unfortunately, at least mildly astonished that this country allowed him to live so long. 

Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reviews‎ new releases at RogerEbert.com, the New York Times, and, as befits someone of his advanced age, the AARP magazine. He blogs, very occasionally, at Some Came Running and tweets, mostly in jest, at @glenn__kenny. He is the author of the acclaimed 2020 book Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, published by Hanover Square Press.