BECOMING BELAFONTE: Black Artist, Public Radical. By Judith Smith. Austin: University of Texas Press. 2014.
Harry Belafonte was well known to Americans in the fifties and sixties, both as a musician and as a Hollywood film star. And for more than a half-century, Belafonte has made headlines for his activism on behalf of diverse social justice movements. But surprisingly, Judith Smith’s Becoming Belafonte is the first examination of the artist’s life besides his own memoir. The biography performs the job admirably. Smith examines the career of Belafonte through the end of the 1960s, and takes a specific interest in highlighting the intersections of Belafonte’s celebrity and his radicalism. Smith’s portrait is steeped in historical context.
While Becoming Belafonte is a rigorously researched study that seeks to stand apart from the actor’s own memoir, Smith makes clear her sympathies for the performer. The book underscores Belafonte’s sense of responsibility to the cause of social justice. Every bit of capital that Belafonte earned in being a star, Smith tells us, was put towards creating works of art that might challenge the status quo, or alternatively, was invested in forms of activism that would take place on the streets rather than the stage.
Smith shows us how Belafonte’s worldview was shaped by his relationships with figures involved in the Popular Front of the 1930s and 1940s. Belafonte’s understanding of the intersections of race and class were not formed in a vacuum, but instead were informed by his contact with the communists and progressives of the period. Similarly, Smith shows us how Belafonte’s internationalism, his understanding of himself as a “citizen of the world,” was rooted in the Haitian-themed plays of the Federal Theater and the music of Paul Robeson as much as Belafonte’s own Jamaican roots. Smith suggests that in navigating the difficult waters of Red Scare America, Belafonte was able to both grow his career and hold true to the politics of the Popular Front. By the late sixties, he was not only marching for civil rights, but protesting apartheid in South Africa and the war in Vietnam as well.
Judith Smith performs her best analysis in the later sections, which cover Belafonte’s film career. Here, Smith stresses Belafonte’s indefatigability, but also his continual disappointment with the constraints of Hollywood. Belafonte sought to extend black representation in popular culture beyond the cold war liberal aesthetics of “tolerance” films like Pinky. But he frequently found himself having to apologize for or criticize the movie projects in which he was involved. Most interesting is the way that Belafonte frequently found himself between a rock and a hard place amidst competing notions of how blackness should be portrayed on screen. If audiences and critics expressed the sentiment that movies addressing racial inequality were preachy or trite, they simultaneously charged Belafonte’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) for injecting race into a bank heist film, for example. Becoming Belafonte concludes with the failure of The Angel Levine (1970). Belafonte’s pet project was ambitious in its attempt to recall the Popular Front’s discourse of black/Jewish co-sympathies, but it made no impact at the box office.
Smith makes no explicit attempt to situate Belafonte’s character or career in any kind of theoretical frameworks. The historiographies of the entertainment industry and the civil rights movement are absent. And Smith makes no attempt to deconstruct or challenge the conventional form of the narrative biography. What she does accomplish in Becoming Belafonte is the lively documentation of a life that harnessed the spirit and knowledge of a movement and channeled it into a career of action. Smith’s study shows how the radical legacies of the Popular Front did carry through the cold war civil rights era of the fifties and sixties, but only because men and women like Belafonte attempted the heavy lifting. Given the continual forgetting of the multiple dimensions of the struggle for social justice, Becoming Belafonte will serve as a resource for those who seek to carry it forward.
Andrew Paul (Independent Scholar)
This book review also appears in print in American Studies 54.2 (2015) and is available via Project Muse.