When it came to the advancement of Black people, Harry Belafonte was a lion.
Friends and admirers expressed that sentiment and more when news of his passing was announced earlier this week.
As an activist, champion and benefactor, Belafonte was vital to the progress and sustainability of the civil rights movement — a fact that is well documented. But a lesser-known aspect of his legacy was how his advocacy extended into his professional life as a filmmaker. Black representation and ownership mattered to Belafonte, especially in film.
Thanks to a 2009 interview he did with The Chicago Defender, readers got a glimpse into his motivation behind producing and starring in a 1959 movie that was being showcased at a local festival at that time.
Belafonte’s ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’
That film was called “Odds Against Tomorrow,” which he produced independently through his own company HarBel. White Oscar-winning director Robert Wise (“Westside Story,” “The Sound of Music”) helmed the movie, which featured notable white actors Ed Begley and Shelley Winters.
It was his statement to Hollywood and filmgoers that Black filmmakers can independently produce compelling films that feature fully-realized and sympathetic Black characters.
He also told the Defender that he made “Odds Against Tomorrow” to fill a void.
“I created it because I felt that in the Black community of culture, we were most barren in the display of ownership and in the display of control over choice, and we needed to create engines that would develop the capacity to take this problem in the black community…and develop a methodology that would help us become more independent of the Hollywood system, perhaps even with the help of the Hollywood system….”
When “Odds Against Tomorrow” was reviewed in the New York Times, a critic wrote that it was “a sharp, hard, suspenseful melodrama.” It was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1960 for “Best Film Promoting International Understanding.”
The storyline centers on a fallen cop who recruits a white ex-con and a Black nightclub singer, played by Belafonte, to commit a crime. However, when one of the white robbers directs his malice and racism toward Belafonte’s character, it threatens to destroy their plan and, ultimately, their lives.
Upon its release, “Odds Against Tomorrow” stirred up controversy because it confronted moviegoers with hard truths about American life instead of providing escapist entertainment — a fact Belafonte acknowledged in his interview.
“Some people loved it, obviously. A lot of people didn’t because they felt it wasn’t the way Black people should look on the screen. Having this race conflict on the screen around a caper plot was for them quite alien,” Belafonte said. “(Being made) conscious about social inequities was a harsh pill for them to swallow because they were not only being entertained, they were also being brought to the table of conscience.”
His Fight for Representation
Indeed, observers viewed that film and Belafonte’s formation of HarBel as groundbreaking. It was the first production company started by an African American working in Hollywood.
A New York Times article from March 15, 1959, declared that Belafonte forming his own production company “could turn out to be one of the most important developments in the American Negro’s long and drawn-out struggle for equal representation on the nation’s movie screens.”
Belafonte would go on to produce more films under HarBel. Still, the fight for equal representation in film, a struggle too enormous for any single filmmaker, continues to endure to this day.
Belafonte said that even in the new millennium, where good independent movies were being made, there still weren’t enough Black stories told by Black filmmakers that appealed to our sensibilities.
“The black experience has thousands of stories to be told, and you never repeat yourself. And when you extend that to the blackness of Brazil, the Caribbean and Africa, you have a universe to talk about, but we’re still preoccupied with making sure that white people are entertained.”
Ultimately, The Defender interview showed that Belafonte cared as much for Black advancement in film as he did for it on the ground through the movement.
When asked whether he had any last words, he ended the interview with this:
“I think Black America has every reason to be thinking positively. There’s so much that’s in our grasp, and we have so much power as a people. We just must understand that we possess that power and shape it into a more powerful tool for our liberation than we’ve been able to do up until now.”