To understand the complexities of Harry Belafonte, it helps to think in terms of his obsessions: movies, music and outspoken activism.
Belafonte’s 1956 release “Calypso” was the first LP ever to sell a million copies. He’s starred in such films as “Island in the Sun,” “Uptown Saturday Night” and Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones.” He’s long been an outspoken champion of civil rights and has served as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 1987.
Even as he discusses one of these passions in a phone conversation--finding suitable movie roles--the others surface.
“I find the playing field, for me, is really quite barren,” said Belafonte, who appears tonight with his band Djoliba at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
“Most movies that deal to any depth in black subject matter always seem to be about contemporary urban street gangs, cocaine-pushing, community violence--movies that did much to romanticize the villainy in the community.
“Like what I’ve said about ‘New Jack City’: More often than not we’re being required to root for black villains and find something heroic in the them because they happen to be confronting white villains,” he said.
In spite of this harsh assessment, the 67-year-old performer is again finding films that interest him.
“I’d be hard-pressed to say that it’s indicative of some tide changing,” said the man who spent 17 years away from acting. “But perhaps Hollywood has found some gracious spot in its soul for a maturing black member of our American community who is deserving of the chance to say something he’s wanted to say for a long time.”
Belafonte has just finished “White Man’s Burden” with co-star John Travolta, a film that imagines a world where whites are the minority and blacks make up the ruling class. Next, he’ll be filming “Kansas City” for Robert Altman. He’s scheduled to make his directorial debut later this year with HBO’s “Black Tuesday,” the story of an African American soldier wrongly executed for rape in England.
He’ll direct “The Port Chicago Mutiny” and has two other writing-directing projects--"The Murder of Hound Dog Bates” and “The Legend of Stagolee,” in development. He also is co-producing Jonathan Demme’s film “Parting the Waters,” about America during the civil-rights movement of the ‘60s.
“When Sidney Poitier and I started turning out films back in the ‘50s, we came in at a time when Hollywood was showing blacks in very caricatured ways. We were either servants or we were buffoons. We were always doing the most minimal things in service of white society. The process had just begun to open up; there was protest in the air.
“When I joined the civil-rights movement, I knew there was a selfish aspect to that journey on my part. If we could only change America, it would necessarily force Hollywood to change its perception of black people. And it did that for a significant length of time.
“But that vigilance eventually subsided, and little by little this thing has creeped back in so that today we have another type of caricature, another kind of debased, negative presentation. And an entire young black generation has embraced it somehow as the model of what life is about.”
When he reflects on the roots of his activism, Belafonte finds a number of influences.
“My background has an awful lot to do with it,” he said. “I grew up in Harlem, born in poverty. My parents had a tumultuous life that was filled with deprivation, absence of opportunity. Much of (my activism) comes from my mother’s strength and her own feisty resistance to oppression.
“But much of it has to do with my own personality. A lot of people come out of oppression and never want to deal with it again. And there are others who come out prepared to do battle for the rest of their lives against the pain and inequity.”
With his new group, Djoliba, Belafonte brings his multicultural thinking to his music.
“The players come from all over the globe. . . . I hoped that these descendants of the African Diaspora would bring different concepts and rhythms to the band, and points of view, that would produce a new kind of sound, not so different than that achieved by Paul Simon and (his 1986 album) ‘Graceland.’ ”
The current musical tour gives Belafonte a chance to make up some dates he canceled because of his increasing film commitments.
“I won’t be doing much with music in the next three or four years,” he said. “If the picture thing continues to escalate . . . I’ll commit myself to film. Singing wasn’t what I started out in life to be. I always wanted to be an actor.”
* Harry Belafonte appears tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. $26-$46. (714) 556-2787.