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The Legendary Harry Belafonte passes away at 96: (1927-2023)

Storied actors are hard to come by, but legendary ones who are also accomplished musicians and path-breaking activists are – well, one in a million. That is what we have lost with the passing of Harry Belafonte at age 96 from congestive heart failure. He is survived by his third wife, Pamela Frank, and his four children, Adrienne, Shari, Gina, and David.

Born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in Harlem, NY to a Martinican father and a Jamaican mother (Melvine Love), Belafonte was credited with single-handedly igniting a “craze for Caribbean Music” with hits like Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) and Jamaica Farewell. His album Calypso, on which both smash hits appeared, held the top spot on the Billboard album chart for 31 weeks after its release in 1956. Unlike many musicians, Belafonte’s record-breaking music career also led to successful concert performances largely attributed to his passionate vocals and mesmerizing charisma. Indeed, as Peter Keepnews of the New York Times reminds us, by 1959 he was the highest paid black performer in history with lucrative contracts for appearances in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York.

Belafonte’s acting career came after several years in Jamaica, service in the US Navy, and an introduction to theatre through Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop which included the likes of Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis. It was at Manhattan’s American Negro Theatre where he met Sidney Poitier, another rising African-Caribbean star, who was to become a lifelong friend. His theatre career led to a Tony award for best featured actor in a musical for his performance (in his Broadway debut) in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac (1954). It was not long after that Hollywood came calling when Otto Preminger cast him in Carmen Jones (1954) opposite the stunning and talented Dorothy Dandridge. Although Belafonte was not the first black actor to break into mainstream Hollywood films, he was one of the first to command the attention of a multi-racial audience with his undeniable talent, charisma, and swoon-worthy good looks. Belafonte’s leading man handsomeness was not merely appreciated and remarked upon by his devoted audiences, but by his fellow actors. In the documentary Small Steps, Big Strides: The Black Experience in Hollywood (1998), Diahann Carroll communicated the power of Belafonte’s stunning good looks when she commented, yes swooning, that it was criminal for a man to look like he did. Indeed, with talent, grace, and fire, Belafonte also made his mark in Hollywood with memorable portrayals in films like Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957),  and more recently White Man’s Burden (1995).

Belafonte also pioneered late night talk-TV before there was a stable of (white male dominated) TV shows breaking down the day’s news with humour, wit, and music. His Tonight with Belafonte won an Emmy in 1960 (another first for a black performer), but as Keepnews relates “a deal to do five more specials for that show’s sponsor, the cosmetics company Revlon, fell apart after one more broadcast; according to Mr. Belafonte, Revlon asked him not to feature Black and white performers together.”

But perhaps Belafonte’s proudest work was his ongoing Civil Rights activism. Inspired by Paul Robeson and friend and confidant to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte ensured that his words and deeds aligned to fight for social justice and racial equality at a time when the USA was characterized by an intractable Jim Crow through which black citizens were systematically disenfranchised and terrorized. It was Belafonte who provided the money to bail Dr. King and other activists out of jail and participated in the March on Washington in 1963. It was also Belafonte who maintained a life insurance policy on Dr. King ensuring that his family was taken care of after his assassination in 1968. Later in the 1980’s, Belafonte was instrumental in organizing the all-star charity record We are the World (1985) which raised $63 million for famine relief in Africa.

Belafonte’s desire to breakdown unjust racial barriers also led him to hire fifteen black and Hispanic apprentices on the film set of The Angel Levine (1970) through his Harry Belafonte Enterprises with grant money from the Ford Foundation. This investment in underrepresented and unsupported young talent bore immediate fruit when one of the interns, Drake Walker, penned the screenplay for Belafonte’s next film, Buck and the Preacher (1972), a complex western in which he starred alongside Poitier.

Of course, as a star in the era of an explicitly racist American entertainment industry, Belafonte suffered too many indignities to recount, being turned away from restaurants in the establishments in which he performed and having his movies targeted for censorship for their depiction of cross-racial relationships. But his life was lived with bravery, dignity, and passion, setting standards in musical innovation, artistic power, committed social engagement, and personal integrity which are unlikely to be surpassed.

In 2014, Belafonte was honoured with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and in 2021, with the National Order of the Legion of Honour from the French government. Indeed, Mr. Belafonte was an EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) before the acronym became popular and many years before the American entertainment industry had begun to fairly include black talent in their adjudication processes. We give thanks to Mr. Belafonte for a life well lived and an example which will continue to inspire for generations.