HARRY BELAFONTE : Humanitarian, singer, writer, producer. Harry Belafonte is still exercising his voice to deal with problems close to his heart. ‘So much of my life is spent dealing with issues of race,’ he says.
Harry Belafonte nominally lives in New York, but his artistic and humanitarian projects take him all over the globe--helping to immunize African children, meeting with Crips and Bloods in South-Central Los Angeles to help them maintain their truce, galvanizing the U.N. General Assembly with speeches about helping the planet’s troubled and needy youths.
Today, as it happens, he is in the Bay Area, wearing the hats of humanitarian and UNICEF special ambassador--meeting with George Lucas at his Skywalker Ranch to discuss ways to use cutting-edge Hollywood technology to help UNICEF further the causes of needy children--and of director, scouting locations for his upcoming Turner Broadcasting movie “Port Chicago,” about a little-known incident during World War II with dire consequences for African American sailors.
Over lunch at Lucas’ vast spread at Skywalker Ranch, Belafonte and Lucas put their heads together about technological ways to change education and help needy kids. “We talked about a possible economic war on the information superhighway,” Belafonte says, “and I stressed the need not to ignore poor children who will be opted out of the new system. We agree that information (especially interactive methods of education) should be accessible to all children of America.” The meeting went well, Belafonte and Lucas both say afterward, and the two are planning to meet again in the fall to plan strategies.
On the drive south from Skywalker, Belafonte smoothly shifts his perspective to director preparing to shoot a film. “Port Chicago,” which will begin filming next year, is set at the naval base on Suisun Bay near Concord (now part of the Concord Naval Weapons Station) that was the site of a horrifying event in 1944--an event that Belafonte, 67, nearly experienced.
After dropping out of a Harlem high school, Belafonte joined the U.S. Navy to fight in World War II. The Navy was segregated at the time, and in 1944, before his imminent transfer to Port Chicago, two military ships loaded with ammunition exploded there, killing 320 people, mostly black seamen, leveling Port Chicago and breaking windows in the St. Francis Hotel, 35 miles away in San Francisco. “It was the worst home-front disaster of World War II,” says Belafonte, “but almost no one knows about it or what followed.”
When, after the blast, black seamen refused to load ammunition under the same unsafe, segregated conditions that sparked the explosion, 50 of them were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to prison; after the war, under pressure from NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, the Navy reduced their sentences.
“The Port Chicago mutiny was one of America’s ugliest miscarriages of justice, the largest mass trial in naval history and a national disgrace,” says Belafonte. He credits Ted Turner and his staff with having the courage to put the story on television.
The Lucas educational project and the Turner TV movie are just two of several projects--most sharing a deep concern for the human condition--that Belafonte has on his front burner right now. The others include:
* Co-producing, with Jonathan Demme directing, a feature film version of “Parting the Waters” for TriStar, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Taylor Branch book about America during the Martin Luther King Jr. years.
* Producing a film for the BBC and HBO called “Black Tuesday,” about a black soldier in the segregated U.S. Army in World War II who was unjustly charged with rape and hung in London.
* Co-writing, with Robert Altman, a film examining racism in America during the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” era called “Cork.”
* Playing himself in “Pret-a-Porter,” Altman’s upcoming satire on the fashion industry.
* Playing a ‘30s gangster in “Kansas City,” Altman’s next directorial effort.
* Planning a world concert tour, possibly as early as fall of ’95, incorporating music from Third World cultures that he has worked in. An album of the music is also in the works, for next year.
* Leading a fact-finding mission in Rwanda and Zaire, for which he leaves Tuesday, to investigate the needs of refugee children, in his role as UNICEF’s goodwill ambassador.
As fiery and certainly as productive as ever, Belafonte is nonetheless keenly aware of his age. “I’m not fearful of death, I’m really not,” he says wistfully. “I’m just frustrated by the nagging demands of so much to do and so little time. When I was 40 looking at 60, it looked a thousand years away. Now 80 looks like a week away.” With great intensity, he vows, “I’m not going out with a whimper.”
And in that light, he admits, “I haven’t been so busy since the civil rights movement.” Belafonte--never one to seek the spotlight, and in fact someone who dislikes publicity and doesn’t generally even employ a publicist--was extremely visible in the ‘60s with marches, voter registrations, boycotts and arrests, as well as advising and fund-raising for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
He has been putting his own money where his beliefs are since the runaway success of his 1956 album “Calypso,” the first LP to sell more than 1 million copies. The profits he received from that album allowed him to tackle one of his first civil rights projects, and an extremely personal one: He was able to buy an entire Manhattan apartment building from a racist landlord who had refused to rent to him. Belafonte and his wife, Julie, have lived there for more than 37 years.
“So much of my life is spent dealing with issues of race,” he says with a sigh. “I wish I could just get out of bed and just think about film or music. Black people spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the race issue. I lost a lot of my friends to racism, including one of my dearest--Martin Luther King Jr.”
Belafonte’s best friend, Sidney Poitier, describes him as “a caldron of intellectual and social energy. He pours a lot into life and he demands a lot from it.”
So does Belafonte relish being an activist?
“No,” he insists. “It’s sucked up most of my life.”
Nelson Mandela put it this way in a letter of congratulations upon Belafonte’s winning the 1990 Nelson Mandela Courage Award, given by the Washington-based Trans-Africa Forum, in honor of his tireless work on behalf of civil rights: “Harry would not sing, if he could not speak.”
Beyond his art, Belafonte is continuing his commitment to activism, speaking out against atrocities in countries such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Haiti and working quietly in South-Central Los Angeles to reach out to children and to gang members.
On June 16, for example, Belafonte was awarded a U.N. prize for his tireless work with African children. He then proceeded to stun the packed U.N. General Assembly by inviting a 12-year-old from Watts to join him onstage to deliver an acceptance speech for him. The boy, Jasen Trotter, told his gripping story of life in South-Central L.A. and pleaded with the international delegates not to forget America’s own children. He and Belafonte received a standing, teary ovation.
And since January, Belafonte has been visiting housing projects in South-Central Los Angeles, advising the Crips and Bloods how to maintain their fragile 2-year-old truce and forge ties with Latino gangs. “I’m bringing people together,” he says modestly, “helping them hammer out differences, embrace commonality and find outside assistance.” He is also advising Latino and black gang members about starting businesses, from manufacturing clothing and ice cream to selling machine parts. In addition, he’s about to start innovative literacy and math programs with his civil rights activist colleague Bob Moses, director of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Algebra Project, which began in 1982 as an outlet to help urban students link math to everyday problems.
“Since we made peace,” says Fred Williams, the former Crips leader who is now involved in maintaining the truce and running Common Ground, a program to help at-risk youths in South-Central, “there’ve been a lot of publicity stunts (involving politicians and leaders dropping by South-Central for photo ops and little else). We’re sick of being used as political steppingstones.
“No one but Harry understood the significance of this truce or offered real resources. I’ve never met a brother like him. This man is a gem; he understands raw guys like me from the projects, sees our needs.
“We never asked him for money. Without even telling us, he called Hollywood friends and came up with $200,000 in two weeks,” Williams adds. “Because of him, we can keep gang mediation teams on the streets, making sure the Crips-Bloods truce doesn’t fail this summer.”
“These kids need to see black men who can commit to them and show them other ways to define maleness than carrying Tech 9 guns,” concurs Constance Rice, who works closely with the gangs as counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “They don’t sit and listen to many people, but they listen to Harry. Harry was in the same spot they’re in. He was raised by a single mother, courted by gangs. He was saved by Paul Robeson and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, the giants in the Harlem Renaissance community--who do these kids have?”
“The few giants who affected my life made a major difference,” Belafonte agrees. “Young Americans today don’t even know who Dr. King was--it’s very painful. Where did we go wrong? Just days before his assassination, Dr. King was in my apartment and we discussed his nagging concern that perhaps we were integrating into a burning house. That thought has proved to be most prophetic.”
Belafonte pauses and turns deadly serious. “There’s a race war knocking at the door. Our country is in chaos and the media is keeping a lid on it. We have to do something about the moral collapse of this country. But we can’t form a social movement without a common vision about how to change the country’s direction.”
The urge to form a new social movement propelled Belafonte to invite an eclectic group of 70 community leaders from across the nation last May to a closed-door meeting at the historic Highlander Center near Knoxville, Tenn. One of the few places in the South where blacks and whites mixed freely in the 1930s, the Highlander Center became a key training and organizing place for the civil rights movement.
The three-day meeting ignited passions reminiscent of those years. Orin Lyons, chief of the Onondaga Tribe of the Iroquois Nation, described it as “a council of good minds.” Civil rights leaders such as Roger Wilkins, Bob Moses and Pastor James Lawson met with black and Latino gang members. Such public figures as Lani Guinier, Cornell West and Danny Glover shared ideas with the unemployed, farm workers, labor leaders, economists, rabbis and ministers.
“It was one hell of a historic meeting,” says Williams, who came with a group of Crips and Bloods. “Harry was the reason for us being there--he was the group’s spiritual force. I have never seen a group of people of that caliber. No one cared about titles--we talked heart to heart.”
Belafonte says that he called the meeting because “we have a desperate need for leaders--men and women of vision, who are going to make a difference and help guide the course of the human family into the 21st Century and beyond.” The group plans to meet again in late August, although the exact details are secret because participants want no publicity.
It’s not the first time Belafonte has galvanized a group on a large scale. In 1985, he brought together 45 performers, from Michael Jackson to Bruce Springsteen, to record “We Are the World,” raising millions of dollars in emergency assistance for Africa. He then helped set in motion Hands Across America to address problems of hunger in America.
Yet with all of these accomplishments, Belafonte is still not satisfied. One dream that has eluded him so far is what may be the project dearest to his heart: a miniseries based on the life of Nelson Mandela, which he has been trying to get launched for seven years. “It sits on death row waiting for a reprieve from ABC, which I doubt will happen,” he says, looking very upset. Poitier had been set to play Mandela, alongside a cast that included Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon and Glover.
“How could you go wrong with this cast?” he asks. “But as history in South Africa kept erupting, ABC got nervous about where it might be leading and stonewalled. Five years ago, it was a sexy idea to my co-producers. . . . Now that Mandela’s in office, they find nothing sexy about making a film about democracy.” (Judd Parkin, a senior vice president of ABC Entertainment, says that “the project is not in active development at this point.”)
“We’re still plagued by an (entertainment) industry unwilling to make films of historical substance. They’re unwilling to focus primarily on anybody of color, because they don’t consider these films bankable. The philosophy still is ‘keep it light, be entertaining.’ As a consequence, we’re entertaining ourselves into utter apathy.”
Altman echoes Belafonte’s sentiments. “With so little art in the film business,” he says, “it’s a shame that Harry’s valuable messages can’t reach a wider audience.”
Belafonte has never had an appetite for Hollywood game-playing. He describes his tactics in Hollywood as “guerrilla warfare: You move in, take your moment and get out before it kills you. I say no to a lot of unacceptable film projects, knowing that I can go to London or Tokyo for a concert and find a welcoming public. And it pays the rent.”
Now, he says, it’s important for him to find quality time to spend with Julie, his four children and two grandchildren, as well as keep the flame burning for world change.
He recently told a multicultural group at UC Berkeley’s International House, “If I were to pick one word that’s the most strategic to human interchange and human thought, it would be the word difference . But people are so afraid and intimated by difference. Many people are manipulated to be intimidated by it. Many people manipulate it for evil ends. Others embrace difference so we can understand more about each other.
“It is in difference that we find the opportunity to learn, to love, and to serve. It is in difference that we find the center to our own humanity.”