A celebration of singer, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte, “Sing Your Song” does three things only a superior bio-doc can do: Tell a stirring life story, place that life in the context of its times, and portray it with the kind of depth and breadth that makes you wonder why it hasn’t been told before. Moving and enlightening as it serves up a crash-course in 20th-century history, pic should be a natural fit for PBS or cable.

Belafonte seems to have been everywhere — he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, organized celebrity support for civil rights in the ’60s, aided the fight against apartheid in South Africa and raised money to aid the starving in Ethiopia. He even helped put together the “We Are the World” recording. Essentially, he was on the front lines of every progressive political battle in modern memory.

“I just can’t let them win,” Belafonte tells a friend, referring to the racists, warmongers and governmental malefactors he’s spent a lifetime fighting. To an interviewer’s question during a 2003 anti-Iraq War march, he answers, “I spend my whole life in a state of perpetual optimism.” And he would have to, given all the demonstrations, protests and uphill fights that have constituted his political life.

Rostock gets the pic off to an unorthodox start, filming the now-83-year-old entertainer in the Harlem apartment where his family once lived, before his single mother sent him to relatives in Jamaica (where he would absorb much of the music that would define his early recording career). Finally beginning to look his age, Belafonte is thoughtful, reflective and sober about a life in which entertainment and activism have meshed, and to great success: Although the focus here is largely on politics, which is Belafonte’s real legacy, he was a Tony winner and an enormously successful recording artist, and was generally considered one of the more beautiful men in show business. His success didn’t preclude controversy; Rostock revisits the TV special in which Belafonte sang with Petula Clark, she touched his arm, and a national scandal erupted in those less racially tolerant times.

There were personal hurdles, too: Although “Sing Your Song” is a Belafonte Enterprises production, its subject is never less than straightforward about his failed first two marriages or his perceived shortcomings as a father. But it’s precisely that honesty and guilelessness that helped get Belafonte, and America, past some ugly hurdles together. And his smile didn’t hurt.

The people who intersect Belafonte’s life — gracefully, per Rostock’s elegant direction — include Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Nelson Mandela, Sidney Poitier (with whom Belafonte carried funds to civil-rights worker in perilous 1964 Mississippi), almost anyone of significance in Democratic politics or the fight for human rights. To call “Sing Your Song” an epic might seem overblown, but it isn’t just the story of man, but the story of a country and a century.

Production values are tops, notably the editing of Rostock and Jason L. Pollard, and the music of Hahn Rowe.

Sing Your Song

  • Production: A Belafonte Enterprises and S2BN Entertainment presentation in association with Julius R. Nasso Prods. Produced by Michael Cohl, Gina Belafonte, Jim Brown, William Eigen, Julius R. Nasso. Co-producer, Sage Scully.Directed by Susanne Rostock.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W), Bobby Shepherd, Jim Brown, Peter Pilafian; editors, Rostock, Jason L. Pollard; music, Hahn Rowe; re-recording mixer, Bill Marino; supervising sound editor, Neil Cedar. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 20, 2011. Running time: 103 MIN.
  • With: With: Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond, Sidney Poitier, Taylor Branch, Tom Smothers, Desmond Tutu, Shari Belafonte, David Belafonte, Mike Merrick, Diahann Carroll.
  • Music By: