The program begins by showing Belafonte’s humble beginnings. Born in 1927 into a rough Harlem neighborhood, he was sent by his immigrant mother to live with relatives in Jamaica to ensure his safety. It was there he discovered the cultural reservoir that would serve him well throughout his career.
Despite his success first with dramatics and then singing, he refused to put his dedication to social activism and the causes in which he so strongly believed on the back burner. His mentor, Paul Robeson, assured him that Belafonte’s art would inspire audiences to want to know more about the man performing it. “Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are.”
From there we’re shown how Belafonte forged a strong friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., and mobilized other celebrities to join him in fighting for equality, humanity, and freedom worldwide.
The documentary also illustrates how Belafonte paid a price for his activism. Rather than compromise with bigotry and prejudice, he walked away from the money and exposure that compromise would have afforded him, for example, when sponsors of the groundbreaking and hugely popular television specials Tonight with Belafonte (1959) and Belafonte, New York 19 (1960) balked at his racially integrated casts.
Similar battles with Hollywood film producers over content and race led him to turn down other lucrative offers.
The compelling, often heart wrenching footage was culled from more than 700 hours of interviews, eyewitness accounts, movie clips, excerpts from FBI files, and news and rare archival film footage and stills, some of which has never been seen before.
In the end we get a picture of a man who seems to have it all: talent, family, energy, fame that enables him to speaks for the downtrodden, and most of all, a great love and appreciation of life.
Sing Your Song debuts Monday, OCT. 17 (10:00-11:45 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.