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Sing Your Song

Sing Your Song

Released 20 July 2012
Director Susanne Rostock
Starring Harry Belafonte
Writer(s) Susanne Rostock

Gina Belafonte, Jim Brown, Michael Cohl, William Eigen, Julius R. Nasso
Origin United States
Running Time 104 minutes
Genre Documentary
Rating TBC

Songs of Freedom.

The opening of Sing Your Song – a documentary on the life of singer, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte – is deceptively simple. It begins with Belafonte’s childhood in Jamaica and later New York, before charting his rise to fame in the 1950s courtesy of his distinctive Calypso sound, which was influenced by his Jamaican heritage. He became a hugely successful recording artist (he was the first person to be awarded a platinum record for selling one million albums) and later an actor. On the surface it seems like a standard biopic.

However the tone subtly shifts about twenty minutes in. While touring a Broadway play in the Deep South, Belafonte experienced the racism and segregation taking place at the time. Soon Belafonte is deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement, and Sing Your Song becomes far more than a simple documentary.

Through his friendship with Martin Luther King, Belafonte became a key figure in organising popular support in Hollywood and political support through negotiations with the Kennedy family. The archive footage is an amazing glimpse into a difficult and frequently overlooked period in American history, and is as much an insight behind the scenes of the battle for civil rights as a portrait of Belafonte himself. People he crosses paths with include: Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bob Dylan, and (later) Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton.

If this was all that Belafonte did it would be worthy of a film, but there is much more. He later becomes involved in everything from the campaign for an end to Apartheid in South Africa, the campaign to combat famine in Ethiopia, to protesting US foreign policy and the war in Iraq. As the film reaches its conclusion Belafonte is shown as he is now, in his eighties but still fighting, currently working to reduce the disproportionate number of young black people in America’s prison system. Somebody asks him why he does it, and he remarks coolly, “I just get up in the morning, and I can’t let them win.”

Narrated by the wonderfully cool and charismatic Belafonte himself, Sing Your Song is an awe-inspiring portrait a figure whose social conscience is seemingly limitless. And despite being clearly led by the subject, the film doesn’t shy away from the darker moments of his life – such as the negative effects his career and activism had on his family life.

Sing Your Song is everything a good documentary should be – a stirring depiction of a genuinely captivating subject with a skilfully woven story that effortlessly draws its audience in. Whether you are a fan of Belafonte or not his life story stands for itself as a truly remarkable journey.

I went into this film expecting a clichéd rise and fall Hollywood story, and was instead surprised by one of the most profound documentaries I’ve seen in a long time.

- Bernard O’Rourke