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Act Like a Man: Harry Belafonte, Mr. Conscience

Film's first Black matinee idol, Harry Belafonte's wide-ranging and politically active career fully took off with his movie stardom.
Christina Newland
Act Like a Man is a column examining male screen performers past and present, across nationality and genre. If movie stars reflect the needs and desires of their audience in any particular era, examining their personas, popularity, fandom, and specific appeals has plenty to tell us about the way cinema has constructed—and occasionally deconstructed—manhood on our screens.
Harry Belafonte has lived so many lives. He has walked among the giants of politics and culture, from Martin Luther King Jr. to John F. Kennedy to Bob Dylan, and become a respected elder of the civil rights struggle in America. His impact on American mid-century life has been so significant that it’s difficult to define him as any single thing, or to see him occupying only one role. His reputation as the "Calypso King" helped to popularize Caribbean music in the states, and his chart-topping 1956 record Calypso would be the first to ever sell a million copies, shortly before Elvis Presley came along. Before he ever appeared in a motion picture, he was the first African American to ever win a Tony.
But it is undeniable that Belafonte’s sharp-planed cheekbones and rangy physical charm, along with that melodic bellow of a voice, had all the makings of a great movie star.  By the end of the 1950s, he was earning—in 2020 dollars—something close to $9 million per year. The political freedom this wealth allowed him would be key to his relationship with Hollywood: very few film stars of his time, never mind a Black man in a still heavily-segregated nation, would be able to exercise as much control over their careers.
In 1952, MGM head Dore Schary went to see Belafonte perform on stage and signed him up to appear in his first film. But the star already knew a thing or two about what Hollywood might expect from him.  For years, Belafonte had been involved with the politically active American Negro Theater, where he had first met fellow stars-to-be Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee. He also found a mentor in the legendary Paul Robeson, who both encouraged Belafonte to use his art to “reach people” and to be careful not to dip his toe too far into radicalism. In an industry still reeling from the fallout of McCarthy’s HUAC hearings, there were major attendant risks in being as outspoken as Belafonte. No one wanted to see his movie career ruined before he’d had a chance.
Nonetheless, from his first moment on a studio set he was determined to put himself to use in ways that would further integrationist and civil rights causes. He later recalled in an interview that ever since wartime, when he watched Sahara (1944) and saw a crowd of white audiences cheer for an onscreen Black GI when he killed a Nazi, he felt that film could be an incredible medium for influencing people. He went into movies with a firm idea of what he hoped to communicate.
Belafonte’s first picture, opposite Dorothy Dandridge, was Bright Road (1953). Seen now, it may seem fairly run-of-the-mill: a story about a kindly schoolteacher and a principal (the latter played by Belafonte) trying to help get a troubled, withdrawn young pupil back on the right track. In fact, it could have been about any school, regardless of race. Nonetheless, this very emphasis on the similarities—even interchangeability—between Black and white school children  was what made it both progressive and popular with Black audiences of the time.
The following year brought Belafonte a new level of mainstream film stardom,  as he was paired again with Dandridge in romantic musical tragedy Carmen Jones (1954), directed by Otto Preminger. The first all-Black studio musical since the forties (Cabin the Sky, 1943), Carmen Jones was a hit even among the more conservative cabal of movie press, and proved to be a financial success. In vivid Technicolor, Belafonte’s straight-and-narrow soldier falls for bad girl Dandridge, following the broad strokes of the opera it is based on (Bizet’s Carmen) to a full-throated and violent amour fou showdown. Belafonte, for his part, was proud that the film showed “that pictures with Negro artists, and dealing with the folklore of Negro life, were commercially feasible.”
Writer James Baldwin had a different point of view of the film, writing that “the Negro male is still too loaded a quantity for them [Hollywood] to know quite how to handle. The result is that Mr. Belafonte is really not allowed to do anything more than walk around looking like a spaniel [...] The only reason, finally, that the eroticism of Carmen Jones is more potent than, say, the eroticism of a Lana Turner vehicle is that Carmen Jones has Negro bodies before the camera and Negroes are associated in the public mind to sex.”
Baldwin astutely points out that Hollywood—and Otto Preminger—turn Belafonte’s sex appeal into something bland and inert out of an inability to grapple with the idea of a Black man’s sexuality depicted onscreen. This fear echoed through the decades of American film, often in far more overtly racist ways (see: The Birth of a Nation.) As much as Belafonte may have made a point about the film’s success as a good barometer for telling Black stories onscreen, there is a sort of neutered eroticism to his character that is all the more telling given his real-life reputation as what Look Magazine called “the first Negro matinee idol.”
Standing 6’1”, with a propensity for wearing shirts unbuttoned to the navel and skintight trousers, Belafonte proved enormously popular with women everywhere. Mainstream white press fawned over him in a way that had been unthinkable for most other African-American stars. It was a widely accepted fact that he was sexy, and that he was mixed-race made his popularity with white women all the more controversial. Given that at the height of his fame, “miscegenation” and interracial marriage was still banned in nearly thirty states, his very visibility could cause a stir. This was only heightened when, in 1957, he divorced Marguerite, his African-American wife, and married a white dancer named Julie Robinson. His film role opposite Joan Fontaine in Island in the Sun (1957) would only add fuel to the fire.  The same year, Belafonte would pen a piece for Ebony Magazine about why he had married Julie, suggesting that he felt he had to explain himself. Belafonte carved out a path which had few precursors, particularly at a time when 20% of studio income came from segregated theatres in the Deep South.
Onscreen, he was often quiet and self-contained, radiating coiled indignation behind his flashing eyes. There was an intensity to him. He played, in his own words, the first type of “black guy who ever talked to white guys that way in films.”
This is particularly true of Belafonte-produced 1959 heist noir Odds Against Tomorrow, where he is one of an unlikely gang of robbers thrown into a job with an unrepentant Southern racist, played by a hard-nosed Robert Ryan. It is a deeply cynical film, with a conclusion that seems less interested in racial reconciliation as it does in downbeat realism. The actor’s desire for independence led to a short-lived production venture, HarBel, started in 1957.  Odds Against Tomorrow was one of only two films produced by the company; the other was something of a disappointment in the final analysis, but a fascinating experiment nonetheless. The World, The Flesh and The Devil (1959) was an ambitious Twilight Zone-esque story about a nuclear blast which leaves Belafonte, who plays a mining engineer, and a white woman as the only people left to save the planet. It would be Belafonte’s last screen credit in a non-documentary film for over a decade, as he turned to a more politically active role in fundraising and protesting.
As time progressed, Belafonte became as famous for the roles he turned down than the ones he did choose to take. His longtime friend and rival Sidney Poitier often took on roles he refused (To Sir, with Love, Lilies of the Field), which caused a certain amount of antipathy between the two at times. But Poitier and Belafonte have remained friends, and Belafonte would later be directed by Poitier in The Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). These films were also partly in response to a genre Belafonte professed a dislike for: Blaxploitation. He said about them: “I find them anti-black, anti-woman, and demeaning.”
In the decade prior, Belafonte had quit movies altogether to join the civil rights struggle, essentially becoming a right-hand man to MLK—even bailing him out of jail in Birmingham. In a 1996 interview with The New Yorker, he said about ending his film career that “Hollywood was symptomatic, and the problem was the nation: I figured unless you change the national vocabulary, the national climate, the national attitude, you’re not going to be able to change Hollywood.”
Star persona is usually a result of more than just conscious decision-making (though it’s that, too). There’s tension between leaning into a “type” and reacting against it, or at least as much as is possible depending on one’s career options.And in most cases, there’s the question of how the actor expresses himself within the limitations of “manhood.” If femininity is an act, manhood is meant to be natural, creating an inevitable paradox that many a screen actor has had to bridge in the minds of his audience. Belafonte is a rare case that seems to transcend it; where persona and person have—after many decades—become nearly inextricable from one another.
The calculation behind Belafonte’s choices—partly because of his Blackness and what it meant for his career when he began, and partly because of his willingness to bow out of film stardom altogether rather than do something he didn’t believe in—makes him feel like a curious case in the world of the male movie star. He treated Hollywood, as he put it, like he was waging “guerilla warfare: you move in, take your moment, and get out before it kills you.” 
Belafonte is technically retired these days. But he did come back for a one-day-only cameo in Spike Lee’s 2018 film Black KKKlansman. Lee told everyone on the set to come that day in their “Sunday best”—dresses, suits, and the like—for a special guest. It sounds so cozy; so befitting the respect owed to Belafonte at nearly a century old. But Belafonte’s role in BlacKKKlansman is not at all cozy. In the film, he narrates the story of a horrifying racist murder: a teenage boy in 1916 who was lynched and mutilated, a reminder of the vicious and unending cycles of white supremacy and racism in America. Belafonte has never been here to comfort white people, onscreen or off. Even in his retirement, a long-ago-refrain of his from the civil rights era seems to be a perfect motto for his activism and for his life’s work: “Who among us has the credentials to abstain?”

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