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An Afternoon with Harry Belafonte

10/17/2012 03:50 EDT | Updated 12/17/2012 05:12 EST
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I caught up Harry Belafonte at a press conference at the Locarno Film Festival. Mr. Belafonte spoke eloquently about the very important role that art plays in politics, his roots in social activism, music and theatre, and about our common humanity:

Q: I would like to ask since the Preminger Retrospective is the centrepiece of this festival and since Carmen Jones was your first major film, did you sense in Otto Preminger this kind of purpose you have just been talking about?

HB: Yes, I did sense that in Otto Preminger, that he had a purpose in life more than just the pursuit of fame. He had a deep social sensitivity as he came from this part of the world, Austria, and he had an experience with Hitler and the Third Reich and what happened with Naziism. He came to America in the quest for freedom and opportunity and he found in America the opportunity to become an artist. And he used his platform to tell stories that he felt touched a deeper humanity. When he stepped out to do Carmen Jones, he didn't just think it was an idea for a wonderful film, it had a historical and social purpose. In most of cinema history, people of colour -- particularly people of African descent -- had always been pictured as sub-human.

We were never considered to be individuals with dignity, with a history, with a culture, with a story to tell. We were always looked upon as a burden to humanity, were people who always had to be helped, who had to be benevolently treated, that we should be instructed kindly by those who had power. But those who gave us that kind of definition failed to realize that long before they came to be who they were, people of African descent and people of colour had experienced thousands of years of civilizations and the development of civil society and did remarkable things long before Europeans came into their moment of glory and their moment of power. Most of how we were judged was measured by slavery. They found these people who had no humanity, these people who were just a little bit better than the beasts in the jungle: white benevolence, you came to rescue us, to help us find our souls and our dimensions as fellow beings. Of course, that attitude, that view, of Africans led us to be always be viewed as such.

But Otto Preminger came to know us and understand us and he decided to take another approach. When he did Carmen Jones, he saw in that film an opportunity to treat us as anyone else in the world would have been treated who were telling a story of interest, of tragedy, of drama, of humour, a story of humanity. And instead of seeing us as we were always seen -- as servants, as buffoons, as mindless people running around the jungle waiting for Tarzan, the great white hope to come and save us--we were given the opportunity to show our own strength, our own dignity, our own spirit as a people.

In Hollywood at the time, it was considered a very dangerous thing. First of all, there was a large part of our society that never wanted us to be envisioned as a people of a certain purpose and history who, from their point of view even today, are trying to force us to a subhuman place. But there were others who said to try to do this, to change the norm, would be a reckless expenditure of resources. Anybody who would want to make an all black film was doomed to failure because there was no audience for that, nobody would believe that, nobody would understand that. And Otto Preminger said, "I disagree" and he stepped up and used his own resources and with the alliance of Darryl Zanuck and the distribution of Twentieth Century Fox and these men reached out to some young people who were quite famous in their communities to step to the table to become part of this adventure.

Q: In your book, you discuss among many things such as going to the Havana Film Festival and you talk about going to meet Castro and how impressed you were with him. Can you talk about the role of film festivals and what makes them valuable?

I think, like others, I enjoy the anointing, the opportunity to be praised given the generosity of the audiences. But there is an agenda for me -- that is to take advantage of the moment since the audience is willing to hear my voice and to make sure that when they hear that voice I am giving them something that they can think about, something that might inspire them, something that might help them understand things they don't understand.

I was born into poverty and the fact of that experience made me understand why the people in my family --namely my mother -- were treated so cruelly because of their station in life. It was extremely difficult. And because of race, it was extremely difficult to get equal opportunity and I thought very early that if I never did anything else, I would use my life to change that reality, that I should fight against poverty and racial oppression and that I should fight against all oppression. And therefore anointed with this mission everywhere I went and everything I did seemed to be touched by the fact that this was what I wanted to do.

The earliest time of my life was influenced by three people. One was the great woman by the name of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the president of the United States of America, who was a woman of enormous qualifications: she had a great intellect, a great humanity, and she had inordinate power as the wife of the president to do things to change the plight of people. She felt nobody deserved to be oppressed so she fought for our equality.

When she saw in my young life how I used my life as an artist, she asked me to come and work with her and be part of her mission. And with that opportunity I engaged in her mission for healthcare, for a productive way of life. Then there was a man by the name of Paul Robeson, a man of great force within the African American community who was absolutely stunning -- not only did he have a great intellect but he had a great capacity for language.

He spoke, wrote and could read 22 language among which were Swahili, Zulu, Fula and Susu and many tongues of Chinese dialects. People always loved him for coming to their countries and singing their songs. When I met Dr. King, who was the third person, he was two years younger than I was -- he was 24 when he led the movement in America and I was 26.

That was very young to take on such a large responsibility. But I admired him too: he had a PhD, he studied theology and he was a great religious philosopher. But he was a liberation theologist and he saw religion in the service of humanity, not as a force to command people but to inspire people. He use religion to teach us about the goodness in one another.

From the very earliest moment when I joined him in the cause to liberate us in America, people of colour, he said, "The thing we must remember is that we need to talk with our adversaries. Our friends do not need to hear our voice--we need to talk to those who don't understand us, to those who would crucify us, to those who do not see us as worthy of our space. I found that whenever we went anywhere in the United States of America where it was against the law to sit some place, to sleep some place, to eat some place. It was the United States of America that created the rules of apartheid. South Africa didn't invent that -- as a matter of fact those who created apartheid in South Africa learned from the United States. We invented the rules of the separation of colour and the separation of class. So we always spoke to those we felt we needed to convince to change their belief that we should be oppressed.