“And this is Harry Belafonte, who plays the part of Mr Williams, the school principal…” Dorothy Dandridge, via voiceover, launches the cinema career of her co-star in the pre-credits sequence to Gerald Mayer’s Bright Road (1953), which not only introduces a few of the film’s key characters but the actors playing them as well.
Belafonte was already establishing himself as a stage actor by the time he made his cinema debut. Born to Jamaican parents in Harlem in 1927, he trained at the famed Dramatic Workshop (alongside classmates including Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger), and won a Tony for his performance in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac in 1954. He’d also embarked on a major recording career: his third album, 1956’s Calypso, would become the first million-selling record by a solo artist in America.
Compared with his music industry success, Belafonte’s film career is often viewed as unfulfilled. But if cinema was somewhat relegated in comparison with his music and a lifetime of dedicated activism, Belafonte’s contribution undoubtedly deserves celebrating. His film work helped open doors for many artists, and a survey of the 14 features he made – with roles ranging from leads to supporting parts and cameos – reveals that he never shied away from morally complex parts or from comedy either. His screen career is unique, a little odd, and fascinating. Here are some of its highlights.
Bright Road (1953)
Director: Gerald Mayer
Playing the head teacher of an Alabama elementary school, Belafonte made a creditable debut in Gerald Mayer’s charming drama, adapted from a short story by African American author Mary Elizabeth Vroman, which finds Dorothy Dandridge’s schoolteacher helping a wayward pupil. Doubtless mindful of Belafonte’s growing popularity as a singer, Mayer includes a musical moment: an after-class strum through ‘Suzanne (Every Night When the Sun Goes Down)’. The scene is extraneous yet Belafonte invests the song with so much yearning, heartfelt emotion that it becomes a highlight of the picture.
Carmen Jones (1954)
Director: Otto Preminger
After Bright Road, Dandridge and Belafonte reunited in more spectacular style the following year in Camen Jones, Otto Preminger’s big-screen treatment of Oscar Hammerstein’s all-Black Americanised version of Bizet’s 1875 opera. Dandridge’s Carmen is a parachute factory worker in a turbulent romance with Belafonte’s besotted GI. Despite the singing of the leads being dubbed by opera stalwarts, both manage to deliver striking performances, with Belafonte digging deeply into Joe’s jealousy and passion to achieve some of the film’s most resonant notes.
Island in the Sun (1957)
Director: Robert Rossen
Belafonte’s final film alongside Dandridge was an ensemble drama directed by Robert Rossen, adapted from the novel by Alec Waugh. Island in the Sun probes the interactions of a diverse group of characters on a fictitious West Indian island, with Belafonte superb as a union leader emerging as a powerful political force. His strand of the plot, which includes a tentative romance with Joan Fontaine’s character, proved among the most controversial elements. Banned in Memphis as “too frank a depiction of miscegenation, offensive to moral standards,” the film led to Fontaine receiving hate mail, including purported KKK threats. Still, it became a huge box office hit (Belafonte’s irresistible title song helped), and it’s a richly detailed drama that holds up well today.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)
Director: Ranald MacDougall
Belafonte founded his own production company, HarBel, in part to develop projects that would advance African American representation in Hollywood. Alas, HarBel’s existence was short-lived, resulting in only two releases. The first is an unusual post-apocalyptic three-hander in which Belafonte’s mine engineer finds himself seemingly the last man alive in America.
Belafonte ably carries the first 40 minutes of the film alone before being joined by Inger Stevens and, later, Mel Ferrer, as fellow survivors whose presence threatens to reignite race and gender-based tensions. Director Ranald MacDougall’s adapted screenplay has long been accused of muddling those issues. But the film’s refusal to resolve in a predictable manner – opting for a relationship of three over the paradigm of the couple, for instance – gives it a progressive, curiously contemporary air.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
Director: Robert Wise
Disappointed by the experience of The World, the Flesh and the Devil, Belafonte’s second project as producer proved more satisfactory. Robert Wise’s underappreciated film is a tough, race-conscious noir starring Belafonte and Robert Ryan as men recruited for a bank heist, the former a nightclub musician with gambling debts, the latter a racist drifter. With sharp social and domestic details, some innovative visuals and a terrific cast (including Shelley Winters, Ed Begley, Gloria Grahame and Cicely Tyson in an uncredited brief appearance), the film grips up to its explosive, grimly ironic finale.
Tonight with Belafonte (1959)
Director: Norman Jewison
In a packed year, Belafonte also found time for this exhilarating TV special, directed by Norman Jewison. Given total creative freedom on the project, Belafonte took the opportunity to make the show an inclusive celebration of Black culture and its legacies, performing with the great folk singer Odetta, and supported by an integrated group of backing singers and dancers. Chain-gang laments, spirituals, blues, children’s nonsense songs, a ballet sequence and a setting of a Langston Hughes poem comprise the musical programme, which is beautifully designed and choreographed. The show won Belafonte an Emmy; give yourself a treat and watch it on YouTube now.
Buck and the Preacher (1972)
Director: Sidney Poitier
Belafonte made two Blaxploitation-adjacent films with his friend Sidney Poitier, who both directed and co-starred. Uptown Saturday Night (1974) is a fun crime caper that finds Belafonte contributing a wicked parody of his old classmate Brando’s Godfather turn. But the best of the two collaborations is Buck and the Preacher. Referenced in Nope (2022), the film casts the duo as cowboys in the 1860s who end up leading a wagon train of Black settlers from Louisiana to Kansas.
Supplementing its shoot-outs, chases and comic hijinks with more serious revisionist intent, the film’s glorious wild card is Belafonte’s turn as the wisecracking ‘Preacher’ who packs a pistol between the pages of his Good Book. Belafonte’s pleasure in roughing up his image is palpable (and would be evident in some later performances); he also has the film’s strongest character arc.
Kansas City (1996)
Director: Robert Altman
Appearing in both The Player (1992) and Prêt-à-Porter (1994), Belafonte was among the galaxy of stars enlisted by Robert Altman for cameos in his satirical takes on Hollywood and the fashion industry. But in Kansas City Altman offered Belafonte something more substantial: a deliciously nasty role, with a nod to Uptown Saturday Night, that the actor seized upon with relish.
As the loquacious underworld kingpin Seldom Seen, whose response to a robbery sets the film’s kidnapping plot in motion, Belafonte is a force: cigar-smoking, coke-snorting and delivering hilariously profane putdowns (some self-penned). The film didn’t get the attention it merited, but at least the New York Film Critics recognised Belafonte’s greatness here, honouring him with a best supporting actor award.
Director: Emilio Estevez
Among the spate of 2000s multi-character films, Emilio Estevez’s Bobby was mostly overlooked or criticised, despite its diverse, stellar cast and some astute commentary on American culture and politics. A fictionalised account of the hours leading up to the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Bobby gives Belfonte a sadly small role as a friend of Anthony Hopkins’ retired hotel doorman. But his presence here is poignant, as Belafonte was a close associate and supporter of Kennedy’s in the late 60s. Belafonte blends in to the ensemble with self-effacing grace, warmly sparring with Hopkins in their scenes.
Director: Spike Lee
From the extraordinary true story of police officer Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the KKK, Spike Lee fashioned a broad but, at its best, vibrant film that makes space for Belafonte in a cameo. As an elderly activist speaking about the lynching of Jesse Washington and the influence of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), Belafonte’s appearance was surely inspired by the speech he gave when he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014, which critiqued Hollywood’s racial representation, including Griffith’s film. Gaining much from Belafonte’s presence and history of activism, the scene serves as a brief but potent final screen appearance.
A season of Harry Belafonte films plays at BFI Southbank in December.
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