"I am amazed at Robert Altman's profound knowledge of jazz. Beyond his pure appreciation of the music itself, I don't think anybody has half the frame of reference he has in terms of its socio-political background."
The man who's talking is himself no slouch in the music field and the voice is unmistakable. In the course of a very long career as a singer, an actor and a producer, Harry Belafonte has brought into the mainstream the songs and sounds from Jamaica (his own), from South-Africa (Miriam Makeba), from Greece (Nana Mouskouri). A social activist -- an early supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a friend to Nelson Mandela -- the man is a fighter. For civil rights throughout the world, wherever they are endangered. Against the drastic cuts inflicted by the US Congress in the Culture budgets. He prods a superstar he deems "way too lazy" into doing *something* -- and Michael Jackson comes up with "We Are the World".
"It's about women, gangsters and jazz," Robert Altman told Belafonte when he called him about the "Kansas City" project. "It's another look at America at a troubled time in its existence," says Belafonte. "As are 'Buffalo Bill', 'Short Cuts', 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' or 'M*A*S*H', I mean, Altman's always right there, isn't he?".
The project brought Belafonte back to films. Until Desmond Nakano's "White Man's Burden" in 1995, with John Travolta, he had not appeared since "Uptown Saturday Night" almost twenty years ago.
Released Stateside on August 8, 1996, Robert Altman's "Kansas City" world-premiered at the last Cannes Film Festival, an event Belafonte hadn't attended since the presentation of Stan Lathan's "Beat Street", which he had produced, and which introduced the hip-hop culture to the international media.
In the following interview, Harry Belafonte tells of his first meeting with Robert Altman, details the maverick director's idiosyncratic work methods, and describes how he approached the role of gangster Seldom Seen, "so totally opposite to what I really am."
He also expresses his frustrations with black filmmaking and Hollywood. Still, as a producer, he has several projects down the line, and he is about to make, yes, his debut as a director.
Makes you wonder at times how he does it all with only 24 hours a day.
"I don't," he laughs. "I do it in a lifetime -- in which there happens to be 24 hours in a day... which I ignore."
ON ROBERT ALTMAN'S "STYLE"
FILM SCOUTS: Is there any such thing as a "Robert Altman style"?
HARRY BELAFONTE: If you were to put before me all of the films Altman's ever made, I'd be hard-pressed to identify his style: every picture is so totally different from the others. I used to be able to really tell a Billy Wilder movie, or a Zinnemann movie, or a film by, say, Vittorio de Sica, or any Italian neo-realist filmmaker from the 40s.
And I can always tell when I'm looking at something by Steven Spielberg or by George Lucas. There's a stamp!
Bob Altman never gives you that sense of comfort! (laughs) And that's really the fun of it. You never know what you're going to get.
He doesn't either? That's what makes it such a dangerous wonderful walk!
- F.S.: How did you meet Bob Altman?
- H.B.: He called me many years ago and asked me to do a walk-on in [his Hollywood vitriolic portrait] "The Player". "I don't know how else to meet you, Mr. Belafonte," he said. "I've been an admirer of yours for so long, I've always wanted to do something with you, life is getting away from both of us, so I'll take any excuse for this opportunity. Will you come and do a walk-on in 'The Player'?"
At the time, I was in Africa, it didn't make sense to me to be flown back for just one day.
He said, "I want the opportunity."
So he brought me in to just do the walk on.
After that, we started to have lunch, and dinner. I did a walk-on on "Pret à Porter" in Paris -- but that was just for fun -- then he came to me with this project that he wanted to do and he wanted me to help with, which I loved doing. I knew there was no part for me in it, which was quite liberating, until he said, "I want you to play the gangster."
- "Oh no, you don't!"
- "Oh, yes, I do. Unless you're a coward, Belafonte, *I* am the one who's taking the risk, not you." (he laughs).
- F.S.: "If that's the way you're gonna go about it, Bob"...
- H.B.: "If you feel that strong about it, I will not let you down, I will give you the best I can." And it's the most exciting thing I've ever done in a movie.
ON ALTMAN AND ACTORS
- FILM SCOUTS: From all sides, even those that don't particularly like him, one hears Altman has a way with actors.
- HARRY BELAFONTE: He sure does. He has an uncanny trust in the actor, and you trust him right back! He also permits you to be responsible.
- F.S.: Most of those that worked for him remember wondering, "Why *me* for this part?"
- H.B.: I was absolutely bewildered when he asked me to play the part of Seldom Seen. First of all, my real-life persona is so very different. I don't like violence. I am a man who's walked for peace, I'm a social activist toward those ends. My music is joyous, people come to the "Banana Boat" and sing to "Matilda" and sometimes they hear songs of a sensitive truth about the human condition.
And here I had to play this rather debased, degenerate, complicated, evil man. To have Bob Altman believe that I could do it strongly enough never to let the audience even think of the "Belafonte" they're familiar with, but just to stick completely to what the character does, was an enormous trust. And an enormous challenge.
- F.S.: He also knew you could add just the right dose of charm to make it work.
- H.B.: Well, without *some* redeeming quality, a charm, a wit, a style, such a character would just be quintessentially evil. Totally uninteresting. To "dimensionalize" him was the great challenge. To find *his* humanity, *his* vulnerability.
- F.S.: Did you go to rushes every day to check on whether you did?
- H.B.: Bob makes you look at the rushes. Every night. Everybody, as a family -- the actors, the grips, the extras, "Come on in, see the rushes." You come, you can have your vodka, your scotch, whatever you want... And you sit down, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Miranda Richardson didn't know what I did. Nobody did.
And without doubt, I think most people thought, "How come, why Harry?" I mean, with all the Denzel Washingtons and Morgan Freemans and Danny Glovers and Delroy Lindos and Sam Jacksons, with all these excellent, and available, actors, to go find Belafonte to do this was a hell of a call!
So these people came knowing only what I'd done before, assuming they knew what I was going to be like. Only to discover that they were absolutely, totally mesmerized by the character that we came up with. I look ugly, I walk ugly, I do my cigar bit -- I don't smoke, you know -- I hate white people, I have to let my venom come out, I'm greedy... Question: can one do it with subtlety?
And at the end of the movie, I'm just licking my fingers and counting the money while my jazz people are playing "Body and Soul". What a big moment! (laughs) What a hell of an ending.
- F.S.: Did you at any point, watching the dailies, think, "Did I really do that?"
- H.B. I look at the movie *now* and say that. But what I'm encouraged by, is that once you let yourself go, once you no longer look at yourself from outside, once you can have complete trust in your director, and let him play you -- stop you when it's wrong, start you when it's right -- as long as you trust him when you get outside of yourself, and be honest, there's nothing you can't do.
ON "BEAT STREET" AND HIP-HOP
FILM SCOUTS: "Kansas City" had its world premiere in Cannes; at the last minute you didn't make it to the Croisette -- in fact, the last time you went was in 1984, when Stan Lathan's "Beat Street" was shown out of competition.
HARRY BELAFONTE: I had a great deal of pride in that movie. I really and truly understood, way back then, that the hip-hop culture was vital, and important, and had a beautiful and strong message to send as an art form. If we were to present it to the public in all of its humanity, telling the truth about where it came from and who the people are, perhaps the larger society would not only look upon the music more favorably, but it would perhaps keep it out of the hands of the money merchants -- who would wind up doing exactly what they did anyway, turning it into a violent, vulgar, harsh, exploitative... As a matter of fact, when I saw where it was going, I stopped being part of the parade.
ON STAYING AWAY FROM FILMS
FILM SCOUTS: Until "White Man's Burden" in 1995, you stayed away from films. Why?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Because the kinds of films that I wanted to make, no one was interested in making; and the kinds of films that were offered me, I had no interest in making. Had I had to attend exclusively to my "film career", I might not have been so extreme in my choices or in my conditions. But because I could go other places, and meet audiences, and do music, because I had other ways to express myself, I saw no point in being a second cop in a super-violent movie and make a lot of money. I felt too strongly about the power of film and the art of it.
- F.S.: The last film you officially appeared in was "Uptown Saturday Night", with Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby. They did two sequels, "Let's Do It Again" and "One More Time", they both star in it, you chose not to. Why?
- H.B.: I told them really had no interest in going back to that well again. I thought the movie we did was fun, but highly insignificant and unimportant. We got lucky that the audiences loved it, so why don't we try and do things that are a little more solid? When they came back with those other two projects, I just said, "Well, I don't want to do another buffoon, I don't want to do another silly comedy. I don't mind doing comedy, but let's do something that's about something."
ON BLACKS IN HOLLYWOOD
FILM SCOUTS: Are you angry, or frustrated, that black filmmakers -- with a few exceptions, such as Carl Franklin, John Singleton, one or two others -- have gone the way you wouldn't want them to go?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Well, I don't mind that some of them went the way they went. What was terrible is that mostly everybody did. In a way, I understand: none of the Hollywood black directors walked in and did exactly what they wanted to do. They walked in when the powers-that-be said, "Okay, now is the time, we'll permit you to do this. "But only this. If you don't make a picture about modern black youth in the ghetto and cocaine and a lot of violence, a lot of action, you're not going to get to make a movie about Paul Robeson, and you're not going to make a movie about Nat Turner. You do that, you got a deal. You don't, you got no deal."
So the guys go out, they do "that", they do it well, it makes money. But then... (Pause)
- F.S.: You once said you were denied the possibility of doing your job as an actor, or your activity, or your dimension as an actor. Do you think that was deliberate?
- H.B.: Of course! Absolutely. I mean, I'm denied that to the degree that all black people are denied that. I don't mean me Harry personally. I'm denied it because nobody has done it. Sidney Poitier had a certain level of work, Spike Lee has a certain level of work, Denzel Washington has a certain level of work. I have a certain level of work.
But if you take a good hard look at black life, and its diversity, and how much there is in that life...! There is a life in Brazil, a life in Africa, a life in Paris. There's a very intense black life in Paris and in England. We tell very little of that canvas. It's so small it hardly equates.
So yes, we are denied that opportunity. That is the denial I speak of. But for me, personally, Harry, I've had a great life, you know.
- F.S.:! Films on (singer-actor-activist) Paul Robeson and Nat Turner have long been pet projects of yours.
- H.B.: Yes, and I'm still behind those projects, I still am in favor of getting them done. I still think that Hollywood owes us that opportunity. I still think that we have to find a way to create those opportunities for ourselves, if others won't be generous enough to do that. I still think that there is a public that would love to see those films and would embrace them. But if I have to come up against the climate that exists at the moment, and the mood that Hollywood and the banks are in, everyone says they want to do them, but I know it's going to be a long time before those films get made with this crowd. So what I do is I just wait.
The truth of the matter is that there is more to a people and more to a culture than just our violence. We have our own "Cinema Paradiso", we have our own "Les Enfants Du Paradis", we have our own "Bicycle Thief", we have our own wonderful comedies and glories and stories, and there are many many things to tell. Not all of it has to be about violence. Good or bad.
- F.S.: And as a producer-actor-director, do you plan to make as many of those happen as possible?
- H.B.: As possible. I'm not too sure of how many that will be, but I will certainly always be looking forward to the moment when it's possible to do those, and to do them. And I encourage others to do it.
OTHER PROJECTS AS PRODUCER
FILM SCOUTS: There are several voices that can narrate, in book form or on film, the "Enfants Du Paradis" and "Bicycle Thieves" of the black community, as you put it. A Toni Morrison, an August Wilson, South-African dramatist Athol Fugard, about whom you once said that, I quote (from memory), "he might be writing more accurately about [our] "Cinema Paradisos" than some of the people whose stuff I see on the screen now."
HARRY BELAFONTE: Athol Fugard is so highly exceptional... He's an Afrikaans, he's white, and he speaks to the black condition almost as if he were black! I've just bought a book of his. It's the only book he's ever written. It's about five murderous killer-teenagers in South-Africa, what happens to them as a gang, and an experience they have.
It's called "Tsotsi", which in English means "pimp". It's about five boys who are absolutely immoral killers. They kill for a living. They stalk their prey and they identify who they'll kill to get their money.
One day, they stalk a woman holding a newly-born infant. She thrusts the child upon them and she disappears, she runs away, leaving the killers this baby that's just been born.
And the story is about what happens to these boys, coming from that immoral, cruel, debased life to what they do with this baby, to what the baby does to them.
It's a remarkable story. We're going to shoot it in South-Africa. No names, no stars, South-African actors. Just Athol Fugard's book turned into a movie.
ON MAKING HIS DIRECTORIAL DEBUT
FILM SCOUTS: You are? And for Turner Entertainment?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes. My first film. It's called "The Port Chicago Mutiny". It takes place in Port Chicago, which is one of the many harbors in the San Francisco Bay.
During the Second World war, it was the most important munitions-loading base, shipping them to the South Pacific for the armed forces in the war against Japan.
Black sailors were the only ones that were put to do this work. They were cruelly driven and harshly treated, and racially very oppressed.
They kept complaining about the conditions. Nobody cared. And the base blew up. Hundreds of sailors died. 327, I think it was, and over 300 of them were black.
Two weeks later, the Navy decided to send these men to another place with the same officers, under the same conditions.
They refused. The Navy charged them with mutiny. And mutiny in the time of war was punishable by death. Fifty men were charged and court-martialed by the United States Navy. They were found guilty.
They did not get the death penalty. They were given dishonorable discharges and they were robbed of their citizenship.
The script is being written now by Walter Bernstein, and that's the story
I'll be directing.
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