“They’ve been best friends forever, but — and I’m being a junior psychologist here — Daddy has never forgiven Sidney for stealing his career,” says Harry Belafonte’s daughter Shari when asked about his relationship with longtime friend Sidney Poitier.[i] Belafonte was a megawatt star in the mid-twentieth century: “America’s first Negro matinee Idol” (as the New York Post put it) and the first artist of any race to see an album go platinum, he took over Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” hosting gig for a week in 1968 and invited personal friends like Poitier, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to join him.
He is remembered, however, chiefly as a singer — despite attending Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at the New School with classmates Bea Arthur, Tony Curtis, and Marlon Brando[ii] and winning a Tony Award for his performance in the musical revue Almanac. He never had the kind of acting career enjoyed by the likes of Sidney Poitier, and his portrayal in the contemporary press reflected all of the social baggage that being the “first Negro matinee idol” could pack. Though these injustices are striking (and their causes as varied as the faces of midcentury racism), the fact that an acknowledged Negro matinee idol could exist in 1950s America — a world of high racial tension and one whose standards of masculine celebrity could hardly have been more uniform — is perhaps more striking still. I believe that the key to understanding the stakes of this seeming impossibility lies in an element of “exoticism” that was both an innate part of Belafonte’s Caribbean heritage and something applied to him from without as a way of coping with his phenomenal success. The 1957 film Island in the Sun functions as a sort of nexus for the issues surrounding his identity and celebrity. By examining that film alongside popular images and press coverage, we may conclude that Harry Belafonte’s Sex Symbol status was possible in the context of Calypso singing in a way that it was not in the less exotic context of most stage and film; the stakes of this gap are visible in the single scene of sung performance in Island in the Sun.
Having stumbled as a young man onto a job as stagehand and, later, actor at the American Negro Theater (an organization whose acronym reflected the collective ethic espoused by its worker ANTs),[iii] Belafonte found himself aware early in life of the curious accessibility of the Harlem celebrity. In between lengthy childhood stints with his grandmother in Jamaica (times that, as Sidney Poitier would later say of both men’s upbringings, allowed him to “arrive at the formation of a sense of [himself] without having it fucked with by racism as it existed in the United States”[iv]), he had seen “Duke Ellington, coiffed in a do-rag, shopping for groceries, and Langston Hughes at a local bar.”[v] At the ANT, the celebrity gap closed still further: he met longstanding idol Paul Robeson,[vi] and a few years later, during a period in which Belafonte’s own wider celebrity identity was solidifying on lines far removed from the life of Harlem, Langston Hughes sent him a congratulatory note[vii] on his Tony–winning performance in the musical revue Almanac.
Alongside Almanac studio portraits like the one above,[viii] the note reads like a ghost of the sort of career that ultimately Belafonte did not have. Just as the portrait hints at stage performance on classical (if slightly camp) lines — the mask may be spangled silver, but the pose is almost Shakespearean — the note embodies the casual approbation of literary Harlem. Though this latter was not something that Belafonte was destined to forgo, when considered by itself, it constitutes the kind of accolade “typical” of black celebrity in 1954. This is the Actor, and not the Singer-Sex Symbol, the man appreciated for his “beautiful show” by Langston Hughes in the insular but democratic world of Harlem celebrity, not the man appreciated for his exoticized sensuality by white suburban housewives.
Almanac’s run was a curious moment for Belafonte. After abandoning what promised to be at least moderate success as a singer of pop-y ballads, he had embarked on a new path as a sultry Calypso singer, all the while considering himself an aspiring actor.[ix] His Calypso persona was rapidly taking on a life of its own, and the Almanac publicity — complete with an “Almanac Picture Book”[x] of Belafonte photographs and musical memorabilia — perfectly expressed the brief coexistence of the Stage Actor and the Singer-Super Star. The front cover of the picture book is a color photograph of Belafonte as he was rapidly becoming known: bright, unbuttoned shirt, dark pants (this had become almost a uniform by the time his album Calypso went platinum in 1956), face upturned into bright sunlight.
The back cover is a black and white photograph of Belafonte in a romantically cut shirt against an entirely dark background, face upturned into dramatically contrasted stage lights.
By the time Island in the Sun was released in 1957, Belafonte’s Sex Symbol status was undeniable.
As exemplified by the text of this New York Post teaser ad[xi] (reproduced below), this was an unusual occurrence, almost a scientific anomaly:
The story of the 30-year-old Manhattan-born folk singer who in ten years rose from an apartment house maintenance man to the hottest commodity in show business.
See him brawling in the streets of Harlem and starting his singing career “just for laughs.” Find out why he tried to pass for white — and how, later, he fought so hard for Negro’s rights that he landed in a Navy brig.
Go with him from the garment center to the Empire Room to Hollywood.
Hear what Joan Fontaine, his co-star in a daring new film about interracial marriage, thinks of him.
Meet the charming half Cherokee–half Irish girl who just became his second wife.
Learn why a man who makes almost a million dollars a year spends five days a week on a psychoanalyst’s couch.
Meet Harry Belafonte, America’s first Negro matinee idol, in Monday’s New York Post.
Both Cinderella Story and racial upstart, the Belafonte portrayed here is a colorful character, too big to be held by cultural norms. Julie Robinson, the “charming half Cherokee-half Irish girl,” is white, a fact that the coyly muddied description of her racial background would seem to both highlight and eschew. The accompanying graphic is one that also appeared as a photograph in other press coverage:[xii] In the Post teaser, however, its subtly heightened contrast and divorce from its background and shadow give it the quality of an icon or superman. The implication is that Belafonte’s success can only be comprehended if he is somehow larger-than-life.
And being larger-than-life seems inextricably tied to being something other than simply African American. A 1950s article intriguingly entitled “Giant Strides of U.S. Negro”[xiii] illustrates one facet of the “problem” of Belafonte’s race. Here, he is explicitly a “U.S. Negro,” and the article’s photograph makes him look, not African American, not West Indian, but — in its lighting, its cropping, his attire — like a quintessentially ’50s white businessman. A successful U.S. Negro, then, should not look black. But neither should an African American be a matinee idol. Perhaps a Jamaican?
The issues around defining his race extended into press coverage of Belafonte’s personal life as well, fueled by the further temporal coincidence of his interracial marriage and Island’s release. His first wife Marguerite had grown up part of an emerging black middle class and attended the Hampton Institute in Virginia (Belafonte himself left school after ninth grade, struggling with dyslexia). Their courtship, she would later say, “was one long argument over racial issues.”[xiv] Julie Robinson was a white dancer. At least initially, press coverage of the two relationships was starkly different:
A black celebrity, it would appear, could be acceptably domestic with his black wife,[xv] but a black celebrity photographed with his white fiancée[xvi] could expect no more than an identifying “Harry Belafonte and Julie Robinson.” These varied identities were embodied the more strikingly by the release of Island in the Sun.[xvii]
The film is, in a manner of speaking, “about interracial marriage” as the Post claimed, but it could perhaps be more aptly described as an examination of the ways in which three different “types” of interracial couples face different social obstacles. (I should state at the outset that the film, though it must have been a daring one in its day, is now impossible to watch without an inescapable awareness of its place as product of 1957 sensibilities.) John Justin and Dorothy Dandridge play the only twosome whom an audience of today would likely term both “interracial” and “a couple.” A second couple (played by Stephen Boyd and Joan Collins) struggles with race only in so far as Collins’s character Jocelyn can be considered other than white after her discovery that she is one thirty-second native islander (a twist of fate that is subsequently reversed after the revelation of her mother’s infidelity causes her to gratefully accept the lesser stigma of bastardy). Finally, Belafonte and Joan Fontaine play lovers whose romance must be inferred more than observed: while both of the other couples’ courtships end in marriage, Fontaine and Belafonte almost never touch each other, and the conversation that they have ultimately about the impossibility of any lasting arrangement between them registers as conspicuously stilted. In fact, there is only one scene in Island in the Sun in which their characters Mavis Norman and David Boyeur are allowed to do more than hint at their mutual attraction.
The scene is by far the most erotic of those in which the two actors appear together. Having told Mavis that he wants to show her the eponymous island as it really exists, Boyeur — a rising mover and shaker in his homeland’s nascent populist movement — takes headstrong socialite Mavis to a secluded beach where islanders haul in the day’s catch to the rhythm of traditional work songs. When a song begins to the trumpeting of a conch, the pair rushes to the end of a jetty and takes up a position in what appears to be the role of audience. Then Boyeur sets his foot behind a seated Mavis and joins in jubilant harmony with the song, both melding with and separate from its timbre and milieu.
At the level of character, the conceit would seem to be that Boyeur is at home among the native people of the island, but as his harmonizing quickly yields to solo call and choral response, the sense of belonging is partly undercut by a consciousness of Belafonte The Star, his pale, unbuttoned shirt and bright blue jeans not overly different from his Calypso performance garb, his placement on the jetty creating a miniature stage area literally above the reality of “pay today is the same as last” about which he sings. The sequence cuts among shots of Belafonte alone against the sky, shots of the men as they hall in the nets, and shots of Belafonte and Fontaine. These last show her essentially between his legs, and the spatial relationship becomes still more suggestive as he moves his hips in time with the music. Suddenly, the scene is about bodies — Fontaine’s and Belafonte’s, but also the bodies of the fishermen, to whose dark, straining muscles the camera seems drawn again and again — and the effect is a kind of substitution for the physicality so conspicuously absent from the rest of Mavis and Boyeur’s relationship.
The scene also makes pertinent a sense of scale. Never easy to ignore from a physical perspective (the folk singer Odetta once explained her theory of Belafonte’s success to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with the cutting, “Did you get a look at the man?”[xviii]), in this scene Belafonte’s stance and the framing of the shots make him more resemble the heroic proportions of a Thomas Hart Benton painting than those of the everyday. (While the faded film stock perhaps increases the impression from today’s vantage, Island’s bright pastel palate and block colors also nod to a 1920s aesthetic of matte surfaces, clean lines, and Olympian poster children of the labor movement.) Once again, he is larger than life, a figure made outsize by way of explanation for its ubiquity.
If physical onscreen interactions between Belafonte and Fontaine were as taboo as they appear elsewhere in the film, what allows this scene to be so unexpectedly (if unstraightforwardly) physically intimate? I believe that the answer lies in the Sex Symbol status that Belafonte had by 1957 attained in his offscreen career. The gap between this one scene of diegetic singing (there are others in which Belafonte’s singing is part of the film’s soundtrack) and the rest of the film is so blatant that it implies a causal relationship: the couple can overstep the parameters created by their races in this single scene because the singing allows an audience to recontextualize Belafonte. This is the actor as The Celebrity, a (more-than-a-)man for whom — at least in public — race was more an element of exoticism than it was a social impediment.
It is as if only in being larger-than-life could Belafonte play a life-sized character — a man with the prerogative to romance a white woman — onscreen. Here his many identities collided, making fully visible the anatomy of his remarkable public existence: by being the exotic (non- white, but also non-American) other, he could be fully the Sex Symbol that only Calypso singing allowed him to be, possessing in a single scene of singing the acting career that was otherwise denied him. Remarkably, America was ready for the many contradictions inherent in the Belafonte Singing Phenomenon. We were not entirely ready for any other species of Belafonte Phenomenon; as contemporary media so richly demonstrates, an untroubled Sex Symbol status was not in the cards. But far more telling than the career that Harry Belafonte did not have was the career that he did (and does). By any metric, “America’s first Negro matinee idol” changed the face of black celebrity.
i Quoted in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Belafonte’s Balancing Act,” The New Yorker Digital Edition (August 26, 1996): 136. back to text
ii Harry Belafonte with Michael Shnayerson, My Song: A Memoir (New York: Knopf, 2011), 66. back to text
iii Belafonte, My Song, 58. back to text
iv Quoted in Gates, “Balancing Act,” 134. back to text
v Belafonte, My Song, 27. back to text
vi Belafonte, My Song, 64. back to text
vii Langston Hughes. [Note : Langston Hughes to Harry Belafonte.] [Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Digital Collections, Yale University.] back to text
viii Carl Van Vechten, Harry Belafonte, 1165. [Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Digital Collections, Yale University.] back to text
ix Belafonte, My Song, 73. back to text
x Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. back to text
xi Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. back to text
xii Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. back to text
xiii Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. back to text
xiv Quoted in Gates, “Balancing Act,” 135. back to text
xv Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. back to text
xvi Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. back to text
xvii Island in the Sun, Dir. Robert Rossen, 1957 (DVD Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2005). back to text
xviii Quoted in Gates, “Balancing Act,” 134. back to text