Harry Belafonte, who will receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at Saturday’s Governors Awards, calls it a “validation” to receive recognition from “an institution that has been so dominant in American culture,” but hastens to add that Hollywood has not always lived up to some of its highest ideals.
“It has been my experience that Hollywood is probably not the best barometer we have for defining the mood of the nation,” Belafonte tells Variety. “At times it will give you films that are quite militant. And then there are other times when what they put out is so subversive of the truth. Look at the McCarthy period: The industry played that game, but at the same time it was struggling with trying to do the right thing. In many instances, you had people who stood up to the blacklist and spoke out, or refused to name names and turn in their colleagues. Hollywood punished some, but many got through. And those who got through made a huge difference in the kind of films that the industry was able to make.
The performer has acted in such groundbreaking films as Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones” and “Island in the Sun” (directed by Robert Rossen, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck) in the 1950s, is known for more than his acting. He became synonymous with calypso music, but he is noted as much for his philanthropy and political activism as much as anything.
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“Hollywood represents a certain ambivalence in American culture,” Belafonte continues. “On the one hand, it can be most punitive in its opinions and preferences, and at the same time it can be most rewarding in the way it praises those doing films that are socially relevant. ‘Schindler’s List,’ ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ ‘12 Years a Slave,’ films like that are outstanding for the way they stepped into a space that needed to have a spotlight on it. So the praise and the criticism can go both ways.
“I don’t think Hollywood has made too many films like ‘12 Years a Slave’ which go into the very marrow of our troubles. With all these (resources), we should have been far more noble in our attempts to speak out and put a light on the inequities of our society, globally. I think we’re on the way to that, but we have to work harder. We have to resist those who tell you if you’ve got a message, send it through Western Union, don’t come to the arts.”