March 2012        


Frank Ryan and Harry Belafonte

The Dublin Film Festival (which has been renamed by one of its main sponsors after one of its alcohol products) has increased its number of screenings, but there were slim pickings for those interested in films that tackle issues of social justice, history, or politics.
     Two exceptions were The Enigma of Frank Ryan and a biographical documentary on the singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte, Sing Your Song (2011).
     Sadly, we cannot comment on Desmond Bell’s film on Frank Ryan, as it was sold out a week before the festival began, except to say that it is described as a “film portrait” based on his letters and journalism and mixes drama with archival material. It will probably be shown on TG4 in the next few months.
     Harry Belafonte, however, is still alive and can speak for himself! This he does in Susanne Rostock’s documentary, which intersperses archive film and interviews with Belafonte, his family, and colleagues. The material spans Belafonte’s career as an innovator in early television and his career as a stage actor in Black theatre. His interest in politics is captured on camera from the early days of his active role in the struggle to end apartheid-style segregation in the United States to his present-day engagement with ending gang warfare in Los Angeles and tackling regressive practices in prison and law enforcement in the United States, where children as young as eight are handcuffed and shackled in chains.
     Now over eighty, Belafonte is a striking figure in looks and temperament, yet we quickly realise why he does not feature as a guest on those cosy chat shows on television where “celebrities” past and present are paraded out for our adulation and approval. This is a man who has never been afraid to speak out on injustices, despite the price paid in his career and personal life, and who remains as passionate as ever about his commitment to giving his all to the endless struggle for justice in our world.
     In his career in the music business Belafonte sought to bring the songs of his Caribbean background to a wider audience and had tremendous success, breaking all sales records, with “Island in the Sun,” “Day-O,” “Yellow Bird,” and many others.
     There was a political consciousness in every aspect of his career, with film roles that he chose because of their progressive content but all too often were cut or edited because America wasn’t ready to see a black man kiss a white woman on screen.
     Belafonte talks about his admiration for the great Paul Robeson, who was almost a role model for him, another black American whose talent shone in the arts but who was also a qualified lawyer and was persecuted by his government for his commitment to social justice.
     Those interviewed include Miriam Makeba, the great singer and activist, since deceased, who was exiled from South Africa; Sidney Poitier; Belafonte’s second wife, Julie Robinson; and the actor Dorothy Dandridge; as well as numerous colleagues from show business.
     There is enough material in this film for a three-part television documentary on Harry Belafonte. If this reviewer has a criticism of Rostock’s film it is that she tries to do too much: to examine Belafonte’s personal life, his music and film career, and his role as an activist. He is a fascinating person, who took an active role in one of the most turbulent and promising eras in the history of the United States, and in following the story of his life we see much of the truth of American life—a much rawer yet more interesting version of what the United States is, was, and may yet be in the future.
     A gripping film that documents the life of a truly great man, Sing Your Song deserves to be screened and seen all over Ireland. The Multiplexes may miss a chance for box-office success, so our hopes lie once again with TG4!

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