There's still a '60s feeling about Harry Belafonte. Here he is at 51, his once sinuous form thickening, his career in shadow. But he is still angry with a '60s fire. The sweet-husky voice, rises an octave and the brown eyes flash behind smoky glass.
"We got into Congress and became congress-people rather than black leaders . . . got into government and became bureaucrats rather than black leaders. I think we have to stop complaining about white folks and ask, what are we doing in terms of our own initiatives. What have we done other than run some kind of ego games on each other?"
It is sunset. Belafonte strides over to the window of his Watergate suite and pulls back the curtains to reveal Washington in twinkling lights. Outrage about black apathy has gripped him in the way that so many social and politcal issues seems to, as if he has thought and worried over them for years, as if he can still hear tramping feet and songs.
This entertainer who was most visible during the '60s racial storms, close to Martin King, still adviser to Coretta King, says to men like Mayorelect Marion Barry, Ivanhoe Donaldson and Bob Moses, "They're all my children."
So when he hears mutterings today about trouble between the black "haves" and "have-nots," he see scarlet. Harold George Belafonte Jr. feels he has paid some heavy dues and he does not want it to have been for nothing.
His art, for one thing. He made movies in the early years that he knew were artistically inferior for the social and political impact he hoped they would have. He put aside his movie career during he '60s and put his work for the government almost ahead of his singing career.
Now Belafonte is a grandfather with graying hair and four children, living with his second wife Julie in New York, singing his folk songs around the globe, hoping to inject new life in his career with two films and two television specials in the works and his first album in five years due out soon.
"It wasn't until 1974 that I was able to see that there is another world that I haven't sung in, so I just broadened my base," he says.
His new base includes a minority cultural project he has tried unsuccessfully for two years to get funded for public television.
The project, with Washington's Peggy Cooper as its executive director, is trying to get funds to produce 24 programs over a three-year period and would include original screenplays by writers such as Lonnie Elder and James Baldwin, concerts and performances by troups like Alvin Ailey's as well as documentaries.
"When it is over," says Belafonte, "either we'll get on the air or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will be guilty of having dismissed the best of the black nation."
In fact, Belafonte was in town to talk with Peggy Cooper and to make an appearance at the Jamaican Embassy to help his friend Michael Manley's literacy drive, although he's not sure just being present "is the best use of me."
Being used is important to Harry Belafonte, for like his idol and mentor, Paul Robeson, simply being an entertainer has never been enough, even in the lean days when he and Sidney Poitier were studying acting and splitting unemployment checks, or splitting matinee performance tickets - he's see one act and Poitier would see the other and they would confer at the end.
After his discharge from the Navy in 1946 and some brief stints at various dramatic workshops in New York City, Belafonte won almost instant singing ballads like "John Henry" and "Shenandoah" and folksongs, particularly calypso numbers, like "Matilda," "Banana Boat" and "Jamaica Farewell."
In the 1950s, most American females agreed with Diahann Carroll that "from the top of his head right down to that while shirt he's the most beautiful man I ever set eyes on." This slick and handsome black dude seemed a born film star, a new-style romantic hero. He was dubbed "the nation's first Negro matinee idol" and his first film, "Bright Road," was made while he was still in his mid-20s, too young-looking for his role of a high-school principal in love with schoolteacher Dorothy Dandridge.
Next came "Carmen Jones," and critics felt Belafonte's antiseptic Joe didn't match the fiery Dandridge's characterization of Carmen. In 1957, with "Island in the Sun," Belafonte tackled the miscegenation theme, playing political upstart David Boyeur in love with Joan Fontaine. He dismissies it as "ludicruous, not a single kiss."
"He seemed to stand by merely to pay homage to her as a white woman," film critic Donald Bogle wrote."As a result, no one cared about him. Or his career." For Belafonte, "it showed that interracial love was bankable. The first job was to try to dispel the myths." Belafonte decide about then to produce his own films, and in 1957 started Harbel Productions.
"The World, the Flesh and the Devil" by Harbel was released in 1959. "I was beginning to talk about themes," he says of this film about the last three people to survive an atomic disaster. A logical plot development was a love affair between him and a fearful white woman. But Harbel's co-producer, MGM, said no. Belafonte stalked off and returned only after a lawsuit was threatened. His eyes flame to this day at this "betrayal."
Belafonte pined, however, to show blacks "as we are, as people with the same hopes and loves, weaknesses and problems as other people." But such films just were not being made.
Belafonte produced his next film, "Odds Against Tomorrow," alone, to avoid compromises. "For me, it was the definitive film," he says now. "It was about the lives of three men who were down and out . . . but prejudice and hates keep them apart." The critics tore into it; it flopped at the box office and Belafonte left the movies for the next 10 years.
"I began to examine my own experience. I said I can't get through here. Hollywood is unyielding because America is unyielding."
So he "turned to full-time political activity," and as much as any other black entertainer, became identified with America's civil rights movement, working actively with SNCC and SCLC. Ironically, his audiences and his show business fans tended then - as they still do - to be white.
"I practice an art with roots in the black culture of American Negroes, African and the West Indies," he says. "The brother understands that and I believe he knows he can find me whenever he needs me for capacities other than as an entertainer."
In 1970, he returned to films with "The Angel Levine," in which he played an angel sent in response to an appeal to heaven from an elderly Jewish tailor.
But it was in the 1972 "Buck and the Preacher" that Belafonte turned in a highly-acclaimed comic performance opposite Poitier. "No longer was he simply Mr. Beautiful Black America; now [he] had discovered in himself, at 44, a rough-and-ready, gutsy quality that had vitality and delighted audiences," wrote one critic. But except for a minor role in a Poitier film "as a favor" he hasn't been back to Hollywood. "I would like nothing better, but there has been nothing to do there," he says.
With the twilight deepening, Harry Belafonte sinks into the soft sofa across from the wall of windows and frowns in thought.
Like a modern Galahad seeking the Holy Grail, Belafonte has spent his own money, and sacrificed potential earnings, to visit Third World and other countries. He is friends with Castro and has been to Cuba many times; he is pledged to help change the radical image of Michael Manley, Jamaica's social democratic prime minister. He visits Trudeau of Canada and Bourguiba of Tunisia.
"I have been endowed with an ability to reach people," he says of himself.
Then suddenly, he is up, pacing his tan rug and grabbing for a meaning that eludes him, trying to explain himself, why he has had such impact entertaining around the world in his nearly three-year absence from performing in America.
Not long ago, he returned to Hamburg, Germany after a 16-year absence. His father had just died. A bureaucratic snag resulted in his equipment arriving late. Four theusand people waited nearly two hours. "Hang loose," he told the Belaftone singers as he walked out on stage.
He was greeted with thunderous applause. Then the audience stood. "I got panicky," Belafonte recalls in his raspy tenor. This man who had entertained for 25 years asked himself, "What do they expect? I was going to sing some songs. I was going to sing 'Banana Boat,' and some things like that. I'd made no new records in five years, had no hit movies. No big TV roles. Yet this reception was the same all through Europe."
Then, he says, it hit him.
"What I am, what I'm about - my songs, introducing artists like Miriam Kakeba and Letta Mbulu - those audience saw it totally. They didn't divorce my social thought from my art.
"I don't know how I've survived being so political. I talked about it once to Jane Fonda.She said, regarding her own survival, 'I don't know, but don't rely on it.'
"I hope," says Belafonte, "I am today more vocal, more mature, more perceptive, but I haven't changed. Live been out front from the git-go."