Sundance Review: “Sing Your Song”

4 REV Sing Your Song (Extra Photo)

A compelling sociopolitical assessment of Harry Belafonte’s extensive career as an activist.

A compelling sociopolitical assessment of Harry Belafonte’s extensive career as an activist.

Susanne Rostock’s Sing Your Song, which views the extraordinary career of entertainer Harry Belafonte through the prism of his tireless social activism, is less a true documentary than a call to action for viewers to emulate the singer’s example. His daughter Gina is among the producers, and he is the source for many of its rich anecdotes, so the film teeters on the brink of hagiography.

What rescues Song is that it catches a man who has spent a lifetime practicing what he preaches. He has put his rear on the line in Ethiopia and Haiti as well as Alabama and Mississippi.

Belafonte’s show business career is almost an afterthought here. The title comes from when Paul Robeson visited him backstage after a performance at New York’s Village Vanguard to urge him to get people “to sing your song and they will know who you are.”

An advocate of wielding his art and celebrityhood as weapons against oppression, Belafonte was harassed by everyone from the FBI to Vegas mafia bosses. He showed bravery: He and Sidney Poitier flew to Greenwood, Miss., during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, carrying $60,000 in cash to fund the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He speaks his mind: He was among America’s leaders in the anti-apartheid movement and remains a critic of U.S. foreign policy.

Belafonte’s thoughts and reflections focus outwardly throughout the movie — there is no inward contemplation. One would miss this in a normal biopic. The film employs excellent archival footage as Rostock races frantically from one major political confrontation or crisis to the next, but the director might shortchange viewers by never getting past the image to confront the man. In the end, Song becomes a political manifesto and leaves you with  Belafonte’s constant query: “What do you do now?”

U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Susanne Rostock
Producers: Michael Cohl, Gina Belafonte, Jim Brown, William Eigen, Julius R. Nasso
No rating, 104 minutes