By Whitney Borup | January 22, 2011

Exiting the theater after watching “Sing Your Song” my husband turned to me with an exhausted look on his face and said, “Well, I’m convinced Harry Belafonte was a good guy.” And…that’s about it. The main conflict of the film: will Harry Belafonte keep his undying optimism and almost annoying sense of good will? Yes. Yes, he will.

That kind of story may make for a really motivational seminar at your local community center, or an uplifting high school assembly, but this kind of one-sidedness doesn’t work without some kind of extra-textual backdrop. In other words, “Sing Your Song” isn’t really motivating, and it isn’t quite uplifting. Were there someone after the film informing viewers of what they could do for their own communities, Harry Belafonte’s story could potentially inspire them to social action. But the film highlights Belafonte’s activism and stops there, creating a character undoubtedly decent, but ultimately flat.

Let me be clear: Belafonte is a saint. I’m sure he would be wonderful to get to know and he’d have countless stories to tell. “Sing Your Song” hints at the potential his life has to make a great narrative, but never reaches that potential. This film just doesn’t tell the right stories. Taking Belafonte’s viewpoint – with Belafonte as the narrator – it never delves into unknown aspects of the 83-year-old’s narrative. And, in doing so, skips over whole decades of activity. While the film labors over the civil rights movement of the 60s, for example, it almost skips the 70s entirely. Belafonte’s friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. and his participation in civil rights is common knowledge, but what happened next? These gaps in biographical information in the film are almost suspicious. I found myself filling in the historical blanks and wondering why Belafonte didn’t support various other political causes. What, for example, compelled him to get involve in the Wounded Knee affair, while steering clear of Malcolm X? When crafting a biographical documentary like “Sing Your Song,” the negative is just as important as the positive. Without that kind of exploration, the film comes across as a kind of infomercial, begging you to support Belafonte’s current cause – whatever it may be.

The film’s insistence on the positive without any mention of the negative leads viewers to search for the negative themselves. Because of various gaps in time and character development, Belafonte comes across as self-congratulatory and – dare I say it? – smug. And because of my own undying optimism, I refuse to believe this characterization is Belafonte’s fault.

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  1. winnie says:

    I totally agree with Drew. I watched the documentary and the person (fictional) who came to mind was Forest Gump. For Mr. Belafonte to have been so pivotal to so many parts of Americas history and no one knowing about seems astounding. Still I am baffled by how modest he is. And no this documentary is not one sided or flat….in the school of public opinion (which is the only one that really matters) Mr Belafonte is a star!!! and a hero.

    And yes… he inspires and disappears within the movements and reappears for another one. I will be watching this documentary again!!!

  2. Drew Hopkins says:

    If you think “Sing Your Song” is about Harry Belafonte, then you have missed the point of the film. Belafonte is the central character, but the film is about our history and the great and notorious figures who have shaped the last 60 years. Except for the purposefulness with which Belafonte has participated in so many of the defining movements of the last half-century, the film is less a hagiography than a real-life “Forest Gump.” It is a vehicle through which to teach the next generation–and to remind our own–of the tremendous distance we have traveled, and the great tasks remaining before us.

    Sure, Belafonte is a great guy, but if you had watched the film carefully, you would have seen that he disapears within the many movements and events in which he participated.

    Try watching it again when it airs on HBO later this year.

    • Mark Bell says:

      I would just like to point out that Drew’s comment is a great example of disagreeing without getting personal. If more comments of differing opinion on the internet were like this, it’d be a happier place. Thanks, Drew.

      No, I’m not being sarcastic, lest someone think I am.

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