Of course, it starts with songs, real folk music. Well, with Belafonte’s interpolation, it combines acoustic vocals with black spiritual arrangements and island sounds in various forms. He brought his best-selling music to a white audience willing to pay a lot of money to see him perform from his million-selling album, “Calypso,” which featured “Day-O.” A major part of what he knows about people is knowing that they watch TV. Rather than simply translating his hit cabaret into American living rooms, Belafonte imagined something weirder and more alluring. In 1959, he somehow got CBS to air “Tonight with Belafonte,” an hour-long studio show that began with a live ad from Revlon (the evening’s sponsor), sparkling Glowing blond actress Barbara Britton (the face of the ad) blends into the viewer’s eyes as blacks in shadows and giant chains.
They’re doing drudgery, and Belafonte is doing a viscous version of “The Bald Woman.” An entire hour is one such eerie feeling: percussive work songs, big-bottom gospel, groaning blues, dramatic backup sets that suggest isolation and incarceration, a weather system that calls itself Odetta. Belafonte never speaks directly about injustice. He believed that song and stagecraft would speak for themselves. People—especially black people—will get it. is their music.
“The bleaker my acting prospects looked,” Belafonte wrote in his 2011 memoir, “My Song,” “the more I threw myself into political organization.” That organization took a familiar form — a march , protest, rally. money. He helped support the civil rights movement and paid for freedom rides. He maintains a life insurance policy for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the beneficiary of Coretta Scott King because Dr. King believes he cannot afford it. The building he bought at 300 West Side Avenue in Manhattan has been converted into a 21-room palace that appears to be the movement’s New York headquarters. (“Martin began drafting his antiwar speeches in my apartment.”) So, yes, Belafonte was near the spiritual and administrative center of the movement.
But those bleak Hollywood prospects—some combination of incalculable racism and an all-too-primitive talent—kept Belafonte uniquely grounded, a cultural organization. It wasn’t movies that kept him in so many people’s lives over the decades, though he never stopped acting entirely, most notably in several of Robert Altman’s films, notably 1996’s “Kansas City.” , in which he performs as a icy 1930s gangster named Seldom Seen, some convincingly intimidating. His organization took place on television, where he appeared as himself throughout the 1960s, his political influence arguably as penetrating as his soul mate, in the variety shows he produced, He introduced Gloria Lynn, Odette, and John Lewis to America.