Changing Perceptions Through Art
A conversation with Harry Belafonte
He’s a man who has enjoyed one of the most celebrated careers in theatre, music, and cinema in the World. A man who, for over fifty years, has used his position and his power as a platform for the promotion of human rights. His name is Harry Belafonte, and he takes a place not only amongst black actors like Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier who paved the way for performers of color today, but amongst the great pantheon of classic Hollywood.
In an intimate conversation hosted by Chris Fujiwara, the 85-year-old screen legend reminisced on the beginnings of his career, on his long history of activism against oppression, and on his strongly held belief that Art and those who create it are important fixtures of World society. Belafonte’s breakout role was in Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones, the film that also made actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge the first black sex symobl in America.
Belafonte looks back on his time working with Preminger with fondness and admiration, praising the director - whose work is being featured in a special retrospective at the festival this year - for his “deep social sensitivity.” He explained: “Otto Preminger came to know us [black actors] and came to understand us, and decided to take another approach. He treated us like anyone else would be treated in telling a story of humor, tragedy, or drama: a story of humanity.”
It is through his prolific work on the screen and through his recordings with RCA in the 50s and 60s that Belafonte was given the power to fight against racial and class discrimination with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, John and Robert Kennedy, Miriam Makeba, and Dr. Martin Luther King.
Through his words, Belafonte conveys a deep understanding of the power of art to break down physical and figurative walls.
Belafonte’s mentor Paul Robeson once told him: “Artists are the gatekeepers of Truth. And when our voice is silenced - civilization will come to the end."
It’s clearly a sentiment that Belafonte, throughout his storied career, has taken to heart - and it’s a message that he hopes, through festivals like Locarno and through Art as a whole, can live on.Zeba Blay