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Against the Grain: Black Film Pioneers: Part IX: Harry Belafonte

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Added: 11/04/2013

NOTE: When available, the images in the article below link to a larger version of the image. Some of these images were supplied by the author, some come from the the Hershenson/Allen Archive, and some come from's Auction History.

"Although many think Harry Belafonte to be West Indian, he was actually born in Harlem, New York City, the children of parents of West Indian descent. Poverty and a turbulent home life compelled him to spend time with his grandmother in Jamaica. He later attended high school in NYC and served in the Navy during the War.

He subsequently attended the New School's American Negro Theater and became acquainted with the likes of Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger, and Marlon Brando while forming a lifelong friendship with Sidney Poitier. However, it was music that rocketed him to show business fame, and he used the money he made to pay for acting lessons while he gained invaluable experience working with the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

Partially on the strength of being the first African-American to win a Tony Award (for a musical revue), he received a record contract for his 1956 folk album CALYPSO, which became the first million-selling LP album and introduced North American audiences to the genre with huge hits like "Jamaica Farewell" and "Banana Boat Song." By the 1960s he had earned six gold records and an Emmy for his first solo TV special in 1959.

He made his film debut in BRIGHT ROAD (1953) and appeared later in Otto Preminger's CARMEN JONES (1954), both opposite Dorothy Dandridge, but turned down a subsequent chance to co-star with the actress in Preminger's PORGY AND BESS because he felt the film contained to many objectionable stereotypes. Ironically his role was played by good friend Sidney Poitier.

(Although this British quad bills Belafonte above Dandridge, the image of the sexy star dominates both posters.)

He did earn excellent reviews in several other films including the acclaimed Film Noir ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW directed by Robert Wise, the post-Apocalyptic thriller THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL opposite Inger Stevens, and, most significantly, ISLAND IN THE SUN, which was the first major studio film to deal with interracial romance co-starring Joan Fontaine and the now ubiquitous Miss Dandridge.

Dissatisfied with most of the roles he was offered in the 60s, Belafonte turned his attention back to music and political activism including the 1963 March on Washington.

During the 70s he returned to film with two comedies with Poitier, BUCK AND THE PREACHER (1972) and UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT (1972).

Belafonte has continued to appear in films, often with a political point of review, and continued with his involvement in music, humanitarian causes, and social activism including causes like LIVEAID, SNCC, anti-Apartheid and African colonialism, UNICEF, the Peace Corps, and the fight against HIV. Unlike Canada Lee and Paul Robeson, Belafonte has continued to work although he has taken many controversial stances including opposition to the invasion of Grenada, traveling to Cuba in 1999 to act as a good will ambassador between the RAP community and Fidel Castro, traveling to Venezuela to meet Hugo Chavez, and publicly criticizing Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell.

Belafonte was honored with a Kennedy Center Award and was a recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

At age 86 he remains active and outspoken."
-Gabe Taverney

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