Music star and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte died this week at the age of 96. A decade ago, on the heels of the release of the icon’s memoir and a documentary about his seismic influence, acclaimed journalist Jeff Sharlet wrote an intimate, lyrical profile of Belafonte. It’s about his singular cultural symbolism and its complications, about witnessing the evolution of his own legacy, and about reckoning with what, in a life full of remarkable achievements, he couldn’t accomplish:
Belafonte wants to tell me about a movie he never made, probably never could have made.
Amos ’n Andy. Not like Bamboozled, Spike Lee’s postmodern riff on blackface, but Amos ’n Andy as a history of minstrelsy going back to the beginning. It was the director Robert Altman’s idea. A movie of a minstrel show. White men in blackface who mimicked every brilliant song, every joke, every true story ever told by a black woman or man: stole it all and played it again, as both tragedy and farce, tragedy because it was farce.
“It’s about the mask,” Belafonte says, speaking in the present tense like he’s talking strategy and tactics, sipping Harvey’s Bristol Cream. “It’s about how much time people spend being false, how often we façade our behavior. Nobody’s better at that than the minstrels. And in them I see all of us. Everybody’s in the minstrel show. Behind the mask, you can say and do anything. The Greeks did it. Shakespeare used it when he wrote the jester. Those he could not give the speech to, he created the jester to say it. All of America’s problems are rooted in the fact that we’re all jesters. Not one of us truth tellers. So how do you get to the truth? Well, how do Amos ’n Andy do it? What’s behind the mask?”
This: In the mimicry and the falsehood, you can still find the roots of the song. “The art for me is how do you bend it your way?”
Maybe it couldn’t be done. He told Altman, “You’re going to get us both fucking killed. Black people gonna be completely outraged. Don’t go to black people with blackface. And white people know it’s politically incorrect. There’s no audience.”
Altman said, “Except everybody.”
Belafonte’s quiet. Then: “But Altman left me here all alone.” Altman died in 2006. His last movie was A Prairie Home Companion. Belafonte shakes his head, talking to no one now. “Everybody’s in the minstrel show. Everybody’s a minstrel act.”