Interview with Susanne Rostock
Why did you want to make a film about Harry Belafonte?
Harry actually came to me with the film and we spoke for many, many hours. At one point, he took my hand, his eyes filled with tears, and he said, "I'm so worried that I'm not going to be passing the baton." At that moment that I was reminded that when I was 15, I wanted to march with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery. Now I have a 15-year-old daughter who is filled with the same passion and desire to change the world I was, but with no leaders or organized movements to turn to. I thought that making this film would help to pass the baton and provide my daughter's generation with a roadmap.
You include some remarkable footage of Harry acting in plays early in his career and candid moments with Martin Luther King.
I worked with a wonderful archivist, Helen Weiss, and we went deep into the archival footage. Whether it was from home movies or footage from around the world that hadn't yet been seen, I wanted to give life to this story. It was a challenge. I didn't want this to be another talking head film. I wanted it to have the feel of history, not just the fact of history. I wanted the viewer to really experience the story as if it were first-hand.
Was the footage in good shape when you found it?
It's criminal of what's happening with archives now. So much of what we'd found was only on film and hadn't been converted to any other format. The networks didn't know what they had. The footage of all the performers the night before the march to Montgomery?Tony Bennett, Shelly Winters, that whole group?was in the basement of ABC. It looked as if a cat had used as a scratching post, but we were able to have it restored.
How did growing up in Jamaica influence Harry's outlook on life and social justice?
Musically, it affected him. And also seeing the poverty, how hard the workers worked and how difficult life was for them. But what really got him committed to social justice was his mother, seeing how hard it was for her here working in America. She used to say to him, "Never go to sleep at night, never let a day go by without showing some concern and doing something to change the course of events." She fed that to him from the beginning.
As he became increasingly active in causes of social justice, did his entertainment career matter less to him?
I don't think it mattered less; I think he used singing as a vehicle to spread his message more effectively. He's given concerts in places all over the world, like South Africa, once they finally let him in. It's hard to do both, because the movement does take up a lot of time. It took its toll on his career. In recent years, his vocal chords have gotten strained so he can't perform now. Though at 84, he's still the most energetic person I've met. I can hardly keep up with him.
Of the many causes he embodied and battles he fought, which do you think was most personal to him?
That'd be a question for him. I think they all mattered to him equally, and he approached them each with the same passion and determination. Each one happened at a different stage during his life. He was only 28 during the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King was only 26. People don't realize how young everybody was. There were youngsters putting themselves on the line. You don't see too much of that today. Until these Wall Street protestors?
What does Harry think of the Occupy Wall Street movement?
He's very excited by it. This morning he asked me, "Why aren't we down there filming this?" He's very excited about all of the leaderless movements that have been springing up. How do you create a movement without a leader? Look at Egypt and even Spain and London. They're just spontaneously happening.
Is there a modern equivalent to Harry?
He speaks with Sean Penn and some other younger, or at least middle-aged, members of Hollywood ? George Clooney, Geena Davis. There are people who are trying to do something. But whether they've put themselves on the line the way Harry has, I can't tell. If you think about it, when Harry was doing this, nobody knew he was doing it. Making this film was an eye-opener: I had no idea about his influence with the Kennedys, for instance. So it's hard to know who in the entertainment community might be equivalent to Harry.
The film ends with Harry saying, "What do you do now?" Why end the film with a direct address to the audience?
I start and end the film with that message. The first few minutes are a rapid fire of where we are today and Harry talking about how he feels about that. And everything in his soul and every fiber of his being says: What do we do now? The idea was that you figure out for yourself what to do now, after seeing what had been figured out for you in the past. As Ruby Dee recalls in the film, Harry told her you need to find an assignment ? I'm not going to give you an assignment. The film is designed to inspire young people to find their assignment.