Harry Belafonte’s Promising Career as a Film Star Ended Before It Really Began

Harry Belafonte, who died earlier today at age 96, was well known for his groundbreaking music career and civil rights activism. But in his early years, he appeared poised to become a major film star. We revisit two of his forgotten early classics here.

Portrait of American actor and singer Harry Belafonte, circa 1955. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

You’ll be reading a lot about Harry Belafonte, whose death was announced today. Or you should be reading a lot about him, because he was a titanic figure in the worlds of entertainment and politics. You’ll probably read most about his career as a singer, especially in terms of popularizing the calypso movement in the United States and his crucial work with the civil rights movement. Singing and politics is where he made his most celebrated contributions. These areas were highlighted in many tributes paid to Belafonte in recent years, such as this one a year ago:

It was Harry Belafonte’s 95th birthday on March 1st, and in his honor a benefit was held at the Town Hall in New York City featuring tributes from an impressive array of star talent including Laurence Fishburne, Doug E. Fresh, Danny Glover, Amy Goodman, Alicia Keys, Spike Lee, Lenny Kravitz, John Legend, Michael Moore, Q-Tip, Tim Robbins, Reverend Al Sharpton, Bryan Stevenson, Jesse Williams, and Alfre Woodard. The occasion was also the inaugural presentation of the Harry Belafonte Social Justice Awards given to Angela Davis, Rashad Robinson, Kimberle Crenshaw, Cornel West, Darren Walker, Hank Willis Thomas, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

Announcements for the event described Belafonte as a “legendary singer, songwriter, activist, and actor.” That order makes sense, given the way musical performances and leftist politics have dominated his life for the past sixty years, while acting became an occasional star turn in films like Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996).

But it wasn’t always that way. In the 1950s and early ’60s, Belafonte was a meteoric screen star with a brief but, while it lasted, incandescent acting career rivaling Sidney Poitier’s.

Harry and Sidney

It’s a strange thing to discover that Belafonte got to be a big star faster than his old friend and early rival for good roles. Poitier became so famous and remained such a respected actor that his screen eminence rose over time, whereas Belafonte walked away from top film stardom early. He couldn’t reconcile his serious political principles with what he regarded as the demeaning roles he was offered — some of which went to Poitier after Belafonte turned them down. Belafonte had nothing but scorn, for example, for what he considered the grotesque racial stereotypes of Porgy and Bess (1959), and he claimed to have rejected the script for Lilies of the Field (1963), which won Poitier the first Academy Award for Best Actor ever given to a black man.

As a lead actor in films, Poitier got out of the gate first, with a groundbreaking lead role in Joseph Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950). He got it because of a series of events that followed from Belafonte having to miss an American Negro Theater performance in the lead role of a play called Days of Our Youth because he couldn’t get someone to cover for him at his janitorial job. So his understudy Poitier went on instead and was seen by the right people to help his career that night.

Belafonte and Poitier both hailed from the West Indies. Both were born in America but returned to family roots, with Poitier largely raised in the Bahamas and Belafonte in Jamaica. Both got their starts as performers at the American Negro Theater in New York City, both supported themselves with custodial work, and both had huge ambitions to be actors and stars.

While Poitier stayed steadily on course, Belafonte took an unexpected side route to his goal. He put together a nightclub act, singing folk songs and getting increasingly well known for songs derived from the Afro-Caribbean calypso tradition. He became such a success, especially while performing at the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel in New York, that he was offered the male lead in the MGM movie Bright Road (1953), a quiet study of small-town educators trying to help a struggling black student, costarring Dorothy Dandridge.

It was a surprise to me to learn that there’s a take on Belafonte’s career that argues he achieved an impressive career in spite of the fact that he wasn’t all that impressive an actor or singer. As Henry Louis Gates Jr sums it up in an extensive 1996 New Yorker profile:

For a couple of years in the late fifties, Belafonte was arguably the most desirable man in the Western world. He was the first black matinée idol in the history of the film industry. He was the first artist (of any color) in the history of the recording industry to have a platinum album [with Calypso in 1956]. As a live performer, he was unrivalled both in the size of the crowds he attracted and in the size of his contracts. Such success could be explained by his being a brilliant actor with an amazing voice, except that he wasn’t a brilliant actor and didn’t have an amazing voice. It was nothing so undemocratic as supernal talent that made Belafonte a demigod.

But Belafonte is such a beguiling presence in film, as in music, that it seems hardly to matter if in some technical way he wasn’t considered by some to be as “brilliant” and “amazing” as he seemed. Certainly, he didn’t have the titanic acting talent of Poitier, but then, almost nobody else did either.

Belafonte’s film career is a sparse one. By his own account, this is because he was appalled by almost all the roles that were offered to him. But no one would have guessed it would go that way in the early 1950s, when his nightclub and recording career was red hot, and he was so dazzlingly handsome and charming, he was cutting a big swath through various areas of showbiz.

Being built up as a major Hollywood leading man, he was several times costarred with Dandridge, whose light-skinned beauty and wide-ranging talent as an actor, singer, and dancer made her the female equivalent to Belafonte in terms of what Hollywood executives regarded as promising prospects to become pioneering black stars of the civil rights era. Their work in Bright Road (1953), Carmen Jones (1954), and Island in the Sun (1957) made Belafonte a clear competitor with Poitier as black leading men on the big screen.

At the same time, Belafonte was seriously involved in the civil rights movement. He was a part of Martin Luther King Jr’s inner circle, personally financing King, his family, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His mentor was Paul Robeson, the brilliant actor and singer whose commitment to communism got him blacklisted, costing him his American career, his health, and very nearly his sanity. But Belafonte was undeterred. His strongly outspoken left-wing activism was bound to tell on his own professional path in ways that it never would with the more careful and pliant Poitier.

Ultimately, he couldn’t stomach Hollywood and turned his back on film stardom, saying,

I put script after script before people who just rejected them out of hand, and I just said there’s no point in trying to change this monster. . . . Hollywood was symptomatic, and the problem was the nation: I figured unless you change the national vocabulary, the national climate, the national attitude, you’re not going to be able to change Hollywood.

But before he left, Belafonte made a defiant last stand, forming his own company called HarBel Productions in order to make two compelling films in rapid succession: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), and The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959). Both are tough urban films, mostly set in New York City, and both tackle racism head-on.

Odds Against Tomorrow

Odds Against Tomorrow really showcases Belafonte’s savvy, ambition, and defiance of the Hollywood system. He hired blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky, who’s best known for his searing noirs Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948), to do this updated film noir. To serve as Polonsky’s “front” at a time when he couldn’t be officially credited for screenplays because of the Hollywood blacklist of writers associated with communism, Belafonte chose black novelist John Oliver Killens. Robert Wise, working in the gritty urban mode of perhaps his best and certainly his harshest films The Set-up (1949) and I Want to Live! (1958), was a prominent film industry liberal, and the cast of the movie was a who’s-who of Hollywood leftists including Robert Ryan, Ed Begley, and Shelley Winters.

Odds Against Tomorrow is about a bound-to-fail robbery, a type of film familiar to noir fans who’ve seen Criss Cross (1949), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Armored Car Robbery (1950), and The Killing (1956). This time, the robbery has been masterminded by an aging, impoverished ex-cop, David Burke (Begley). He has two other hard-luck men in mind to fill out his team: his friend, nightclub singer Johnny Ingram (Belafonte), a cool dude who’s also a compulsive gambler and owes money to the mob, and Earle Slater (Ryan), a tough, embittered ex-con who never regained his equilibrium after returning from World War II and is reluctantly supported by his girlfriend Lorry (Winters) while he tries to get on his feet.

Slater is also a Southern racist, which doesn’t bode well for the success of the robbery. He doesn’t want to work with a black man, and Ingram also refuses to do the job, based on his gambler’s instinct that this enterprise is a hundred-to-one shot. But Burke is desperate, and he does his damnedest to amplify the desperation of the two other men.

In order for the robbery to come off, Burke specifically needs a tall, thin black man, to take the place of the restaurant deliveryman who brings dinner to the elderly bank guards each night. It’s a bitter point in a film dealing directly with harsh racist realities that it can be assumed the bank guards won’t recognize that it’s not the same deliveryman who brings them dinner every single night, as long as he’s black.

Burke resorts to going behind Ingram’s back to an old crony, the mafioso holding Ingram’s IOUs, persuading him to threaten Ingram with death if he doesn’t pay up in twenty-four hours. Ultimately, this will force Ingram into taking the job. But before he’s told that’s an option, we follow him as he spends what he believes is the last day of his life.

In order to deal with his life as a black man, Ingram has adopted the persona of what was once known as a “sport,” a high-liver who gambles big, often in the world of sports, which is where the term comes from. He also tends to dress sharp, drink hard, drive a flashy car, love the night life, and cut a swath with women. It’s a devil-may-care persona that was a provocative one in an American black man of the early to mid-twentieth century, maddening to white bigots because a sport’s elan represented such a dauntless enjoyment of life.

In Odds Against Tomorrow, Belafonte’s Ingram is such a snazzy sport, the young black elevator operator who runs him up to Burke’s apartment to discuss the robbery can only gaze at him in smiling awe. But his ex-wife Ruth (Kim Hamilton) isn’t so appreciative and divorced him specifically to prevent his attitudes from rubbing off on their nine-year-old daughter, Eadie (Lois Thorne). Ruth sees clearly that his entrenched rage and defiance of white supremacy underlies the good-time Charlie veneer. In turn, he fiercely rejects what he regards as her gullible liberalism, accusing her of making nice with white people who will never really accept her as an equal.

Ingram spends what he thinks is his last day with Eadie, taking her to the amusement park and periodically darting off while she’s on rides to make urgent calls, trying to negotiate any kind of way out of his predicament. But as far as he knows, he’s still under sentence of death when he goes to perform at the club that night. It’s a world Belafonte knew intimately, and these scenes might represent his best performance on film, as he drinks heavily and performs wildly, providing an unrehearsed counterpoint-chorus to the main singer (“All men are evil!”), who doesn’t appreciate him crabbing her act.

His sport persona is so well established, however, that his frenzied behavior that night reads as just Johnny’s ebullience reaching a zanier level. All that will fall away under the pressure of the heist, as Ingram’s essential rage finally burns through the veneer.

In the end, he’d rather kill Slater than escape the police, which he could easily do after the robbery goes wrong. And Slater would also rather kill him, so the film ends with simultaneous murder and a recreation of the gas-tank explosions that were the climactic scene in another film noir, White Heat (1949), starring James Cagney. Only there’s no psychotically gleeful “Top of the world, Ma!” to this ending. It’s a straight, solemn allegory arguing mutually assured destruction, a kind of racial Armageddon, several years before James Baldwin was going on talk shows, telling white hosts and audiences that without significant sociopolitical change, “We’re going to burn down your house.”

The World, the Flesh and the Devil

The end of the world goes from symbolic final images in Odds Against Tomorrow to the main narrative content of Belafonte’s other independently produced film, The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Though it suffers in terms of direction: Ranald MacDougall is no Wise, though he was another Hollywood leftist typical of those who worked with Belafonte on the films he produced, the son of a union organizer who rose out of poverty to become a successful screenwriter (Mildred Pierce, The Unsuspected) before trying his hand at directing.

But the film features an impressive star turn by Belafonte as Pennsylvania mine inspector Ralph Burton, whose seeming bad luck in being trapped for days after a mine cave-in proves fortunate when it allows him to survive a nuclear war and the fallout that’s only deadly for five days.

Belafonte is alone onscreen for the first half-hour of the film, which is arguably the best half-hour. He’s a captivating presence on-screen, relaxed and graceful, handling all physical “business” convincingly, a compulsively watchable actor. There’s a wonderful interlude when Ralph is trying to keep himself sane while trapped underground and turns his tapping on pipes, trying to communicate with anyone above who might hear, into a catchy, humorous, impromptu song: “I don’t like it, I don’t like it, I don’t like it here. Nobody likes it, nobody likes it, nobody likes it here!”

He finally emerges into a desolate world. From discarded newspapers, he learns that the United Nations retaliated against the use of weaponized atomic toxins, which led to millions fleeing for their lives. The deserted streets only get eerier when he takes a truck and drives to New York City, figuring there will be living people there if anywhere. Belafonte running through the empty gray canyons of the city are among the searing images of film noir.

But in spite of his terror, his character, Ralph, is a fundamentally affirmative and practical laboring man, who’s always inclined to do what can be done to make things better, no matter how hopeless things seem. He immediately set about restoring electricity and running water in an apartment building where he plans to live. And soon his skills and decency become the entire functioning basis of the tiny society that emerges around him.

Harry Belafonte in The World, the Flesh and the Devil. (MGM)

The way Ralph sets about handling every practical necessity of life while others hang around arguing and emoting is strikingly like the apocalyptic scenario in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), in a which a young working-class black man named Ben (Duane Jones), who has assorted practical skills, struggles to keep a houseful of contentious white people alive and protected during a zombie invasion.

Ultimately the film devolves into a strange love triangle among what might be the only three living people left in the world — Ralph, a young white woman named Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens), and a forty-ish white man named Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer), who arrives by boat, ill and injured. But as “Ben” recovers, he becomes bullheadedly obsessed by winning Sarah’s affections away from Ralph, whom she clearly prefers. Ralph holds back from reciprocating Sarah’s feelings for grim reasons she can’t fully comprehend. He knows he’d have had virtually no chance with her in the American society that existed pre-nuclear disaster. And if that society is even partially restored, he’s sure he’ll lose her again, even as he works hard to man the two-way radio for a certain period of time every day, trying to locate other survivors.

Harry Belafonte and Inger Stevens in The World, the Flesh and the Devil. (MGM)

As the situation spins out of control, Ben stalks Ralph through streets with a gun, determined to eliminate his rival, and Ralph arms himself as well. At that point, it looks as if this film will reprise the symbolic mutual destruction of Odds Against Tomorrow. But as Ralph passes the UN building, he climbs the steps in the park opposite and sees the line from Isaiah 2:4 carved above the staircase on what is known as the Isaiah Wall: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (In 1979, the surrounding park was dedicated to Ralph Bunche, United Nations mediator who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, the first African American to receive it.)

Ralph casts away his gun, and Ben realizes he can’t shoot his unarmed foe. As the men walk away from each other, Sarah calls to each and takes each by the hand. The three walk down the deserted city street together, and instead of “The End,” the closing credit reads “The Beginning.” It’s a surprisingly sudden, uplifting answer to the stark despair of Odds Against Tomorrow.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil failed badly at the box office, and no doubt that contributed to Belafonte’s losing fight to get the kind of films made that he wanted to star in. He was several years too early to catch the countercultural wave of politically critical films that would characterize the “New Hollywood” of the 1960s, and by the time it rolled around, he’d committed himself to performing music, touring worldwide, and intense political activism. His 1970s roles in Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974),  reuniting him with old friend Poitier, who costarred and directed them, marked Belafonte’s welcome return to the screen which didn’t last long.

But he was an incandescent film star for a few remarkable years, and it’s worth checking out his films if only to see what type of black male stardom Belafonte was trying to embody, particularly in relation to his friend Sidney Poitier’s less political, more popular version.