This season of African Odysseys at BFI Southbank, meticulously curated by Burt Caesar, is an homage to Harry Belafonte’s remarkable journey and contributions, capturing his artistic prowess and unwavering commitment to social justice. Harry Belafonte, whose film career spanned an impressive 70 years, might not have had as many film credits as his contemporary, Sidney Poitier, yet his profound impact stemmed from a harmonious blend of his creative talents and his deep-rooted activism, setting a unique precedent in Hollywood.
His work and dedication seamlessly wove together the arts and advocacy, positioning him as a vital figure in the battle for civil liberties, where he stood against daunting adversaries like fascism, racial apartheid, and McCarthyism. His efforts were not in isolation but in concert with monumental movements like the civil rights crusade led by Martin Luther King, Jr., where his role was not just participatory but pivotal.
Belafonte drew inspiration and strength from his mentor, Paul Robeson, who faced significant challenges and oppression from government entities due to his radical political stances. This influence is evident in Belafonte’s relentless optimism and the resilience he displayed throughout his career, aspects undoubtedly reinforced by his parallel success as a world-renowned singer. His film work, characterised by an independent spirit and a refusal to conform, was consistently aimed at leveraging the power of cinema to provoke thought and instigate societal change.
In his collaborations with groundbreaking directors such as Otto Preminger, Robert Wise, Robert Altman, and Spike Lee, Belafonte was not merely an actor but a catalyst for change, using his platform to address and highlight crucial societal issues. His films were more than mere entertainment; they were potent tools for advocacy and transformation, encapsulating his belief that true art should constantly challenge the status quo and contribute to the broader dialogue on justice and equality.
Harry Belafonte Season
SING YOUR SONG Screening and Q&A – December 2, 2PM
Event: Screening of “Sing Your Song” (2011, Director: Susanne Rostock) with an extended intro by curator Burt Caesar, followed by a Q&A with Susanne Rostock, Tim Reid, Candace Allen and Clarke Peters
Details: This engaging 105-minute documentary, rated 12A, offers an intimate portrait of Harry Belafonte’s career and activism. Directed by Susanne Rostock, it features luminaries such as Sidney Poitier, Marge Champion, and Diahann Caroll, who enrich the narrative of Belafonte’s journey from a celebrated artist to a fervent activist. The film meticulously documents his influence in the arts and his pivotal role in the civil rights movement, providing a holistic view of his life’s work. Book tickets for this event here.
Seniors’ Free Archive Matinee: Island in the Sun + Talk – December 13, 11:00
Event: Screening of “Island in the Sun” (1957, Director: Robert Rossen) and talk “Harry Belafonte – A Veces Miro Mi Vida (Sometimes I Look at My Life)”.
Details: The 119-minute film “Island in the Sun” charts Harry Belafonte’s rise to fame, portraying his significant impact in the entertainment industry. The additional talk, featuring a rare Cuban TV documentary, offers deeper insights into Belafonte’s life, revealing his artistry, personal struggles, and his contributions to societal change, making it a comprehensive and engaging event.
ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW Screening – December 14, 20:45,
Event: Screening of “Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959, Director: Robert Wise).
Details: In this 96-minute film, presented in 35mm, Harry Belafonte delivers a powerful performance as a gambler in deep debt to loan sharks. The film, intertwined with social commentaries and intense drama, showcases Belafonte’s versatility as an actor. The screening is further enhanced by Burt Caesar’s introduction, offering additional context to this cinematic masterpiece.
BLACkKkKLANSMAN Screening – December 10, 18:20; December 14, 18:00; December 22, 20:20; December 23, 15:50; December 27, 20:40; December 28, 17:50
Event: Screening of “BlacKkKlansman” (2018, Director: Spike Lee).
Details: “BlacKkKlansman,” a 135-minute film rated 15, set in the early 1970s, narrates a gripping story of a Black cop and his white partner infiltrating the KKK. Belafonte’s performance as a griot brings a profound depth and historical context to the film. This screening is a compelling portrayal of racial tensions and the pursuit of justice, reflecting the societal issues that Belafonte himself actively confronted.
HARRY BELAFONTE IN CONCERT AND CONVERSATION – December 16, 15:00
Event: Screening of “Harry Belafonte in Concert and Conversation” (BBC 1958, Director: Bryan Sears) and “Harry Belafonte” (BBC 1977, Director: Yvonne Littlewood).
Details: This event includes a 30-minute recording of Harry Belafonte’s first singing performance on British TV and a 50-minute concert recording. The compilation provides a rare and personal look into Belafonte’s musical journey, complemented by intimate conversation clips, offering audiences a unique perspective on his artistic evolution and his profound impact on music and civil rights.
KANSAS CITY Screening with Introduction – December 17, 18:20
Event: Screening of “Kansas City” (1996, Director: Robert Altman).
Details: In “Kansas City,” a 115-minute film rated 15, Harry Belafonte portrays Seldom Seen, a gang boss, in a narrative woven with themes of corruption and social upheaval. This screening, introduced by Burt Caesar, highlights Belafonte’s skill in portraying complex characters, further cementing his status as an influential figure in cinema.
CARMEN JONES Screening – December 23, 15:50, NFT3 and December 28, 17:50
Event: Screening of “Carmen Jones” (1954, Director: Otto Preminger).
Details: Carmen Jones, 105 minutes, features Dorothy Dandridge’s Oscar-nominated performance alongside Harry Belafonte. Set against the backdrop of ‘Jim Crow’ racial segregation, the film offers a potent mix of romance, drama, and social commentary, showcasing Belafonte’s ability to captivate audiences while addressing critical societal issues.
About African Odysseys
African Odysseys is an innovative and culturally enriching program at the British Film Institute (BFI), dedicated to exploring and celebrating the works of African, Caribbean, and African diaspora filmmakers and artists.
This program provides a platform for films that challenge stereotypes, open dialogues, and offer diverse perspectives on Black communities’ experiences and artistic expressions worldwide. By showcasing a mix of historical and contemporary films, African Odysseys highlights significant contributions to cinema and sparks meaningful conversations about race, identity, politics, and history. This initiative represents BFI’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, making it a beacon for film enthusiasts and cultural scholars seeking to delve deeper into the rich tapestry of African and diasporic cinema.
The British Film Institute (BFI) is a cornerstone of the UK’s cultural landscape, dedicated to preserving and promoting the art of film and television. Renowned for its world-class archive, cinemas, festivals, and educational programs, the BFI is a hub for cinema enthusiasts, filmmakers, and researchers.
It offers diverse screenings, from mainstream blockbusters to independent and classic films, alongside film restoration and historical preservation efforts. As a film education and research leader, the BFI provides resources and opportunities for learning and development in the film industry. Its commitment to diversity and innovation in cinema makes it an invaluable resource for exploring the history and future of filmmaking.