Harry Belafonte, who brought music from “The Islands” to the masses and helped integrate American pop music, film and television, an activist who never lost that passion for justice and equality, has died at the age of 96.
He outlived his friend and fellow Caribbean islander who made it in Hollywood Sidney Poiter. But each man’s passing has brought back the flood of memories that connected them through each’s long and storied careers.
Belafonte got his start in The American Negro Theatre, which is where he met and befriended Poitier. They became two of the most important figures in American popular culture, each man breaking segregation barriers in his primary field, often swapping places by being this or that “first” in film.
You read the biography of one, and the other figures most prominently in it. Harry would turn down roles (“Porgy and Bess”), Sidney would take the job instead. Sidney wins his first Oscar for “Lilies of the Field,” Harry rides him for not doing his own singing.
They’d pal around, make movies together, and fall out — Belafonte always the more outspoken and fiery, Poitier always the more courtly and genteel.
I got to interview them separately, and each joked about the absent other in ways that had this cute edge to it. I recall Poitier getting a guarded look on his face when I started to talk about what Harry had said jokingly about him when Belafonte was honored at the National Black Theatre Festival, which I used to cover for the newspaper in the city where it was founded.
And I remember Belafonte leaning forward with a teeth-baring smile when I threw something that Poitier had said jokingly about him in an earlier interview.
Both men lost their wariness and roared at each other’s loving barbs when the punchlines arrived, plainly delighted that they’d come up together and yet taken different paths towards the same personal and universal goals.
Loved Harry in “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Buck and the Preacher” with Sidney, and he classed up “BlackKklansman” in ways Spike Lee was certain he would. “Odds Against Tomorrow,” “The Angel Levine,” Altman’s “The Player” and “Kansas City,” “Bobby,” he was damned good on the screen.
Poitier had the grander film career. But only Harry could teach the world to love Caribbean music and the island lifestyle. Lifelong fan Jimmy Buffett used to cover this one, in tribute and to give thanks.
96 years. Well done.