Watch These Great Harry Belafonte Screen Performances

With the death of Harry Belafonte, America lost a musical genius and an icon of activism, who rose from a life of poverty to one of massive record sales and sellout concerts, using his fame as a performer to shed light on the causes he believed in.

But Belafonte was also a major movie star, and though his cinematic output wasn’t exactly prolific — he appeared, surprisingly, in fewer than two dozen feature films during his 65-year film career — he made a memorable impression each time he was onscreen. Below are a few highlights, all available to stream.

‘Carmen Jones’ (1954)

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Belafonte’s first leading role was only his second film appearance, after a supporting turn in the Dorothy Dandridge vehicle “Bright Road.” He reteamed with Dandridge for Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of the Oscar Hammerstein II musical “Carmen Jones,” itself an interpretation of Bizet’s classic opera “Carmen,” modernized and reimagined for an all-Black cast. The production was notoriously tempestuous, but Belafonte couldn’t have asked for a project more suited to his talents: The picture gave him the opportunity to emote and smolder in equal measure as the young soldier Joe, proving that this was no mere pop singer moonlighting in movies. This was the work of a full-fledged film star.

‘The Angel Levine’ (1970)

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Yet Belafonte’s first burst of work was short-lived. After a handful of excellent dramatic turns in the late 1950s (most notably in Robert Wise’s “Odds Against Tomorrow,” sadly unavailable to stream), Belafonte devoted his time in the 1960s to his civil rights activism. But he made a triumphant return to the screen in this delightfully odd comedy-drama, playing the title role — an honest-to-goodness guardian angel who comes down to earth to help a poor Jewish tailor (the wonderful Zero Mostel) through a patch of bad luck and bad faith. This kind of material can easily veer into either the maudlin or the blasphemous, but Belafonte’s playful yet practical performance achieves the perfect balance of winking wit and gentle lesson-learning.

‘Buck and the Preacher’ (1972)

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The comic chops Belafonte exhibited in “The Angel Levine” would come to define his best screen work in the 1970s. Two years later, he teamed with his fellow actor-activist Sidney Poitier for what was clearly intended as a Black riff on “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” with Poitier and Belafonte in the titular roles of Wild West outlaws leading a wagon train away from white bounty hunters. Poitier plays the straight man, as he often did in comedies, allowing Belafonte to have a blast as Reverend Willis Oaks Rutherford, a con artist masquerading as a man of the cloth. When the original director, Joseph Sargent, was fired a few days into shooting, Poitier took over directorial duties, launching a new career in film.

‘Uptown Saturday Night’ (1974)

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Unsurprisingly, when Poitier directed his next comedy, he again approached Belafonte to participate. Poitier co-stars in this rowdy buddy action-comedy with Bill Cosby (fair warning), leaving Belafonte to steal scenes galore — no mean feat when appearing with Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor — in his uproarious turn as Geechie Dan Beauford, a hot-tempered underworld boss. With “The Godfather” fresh in the minds of moviegoers, Belafonte played the role as a spoof on Marlon Brando’s already iconic performance as Don Vito Corleone, complete with rasping voice, puffed cheeks and pencil-thin mustache. It’s an inspired piece of comic acting, and a reminder that the serious-minded performer was just as comfortable with broad, “Saturday Night Live”-style tomfoolery.

‘Kansas City’ (1996)

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Belafonte took another long break — nearly two decades — from screen acting after “Uptown,” and even then, he appeared first as himself in a pair of star-studded Robert Altman pictures (“The Player” and “Ready to Wear”). But Altman got one more great, full-length performance out of the performer with this period gangster comedy-drama, set in the city and time of the director’s youth. As the underworld boss of Kansas City, the wonderfully named and perpetually whispering Seldom Seen, Belafonte eschews his customary warmth and comic inclinations to play a genuinely menacing villain — the kind of man who never raises his voice, because he never has to. It’s a chilling and unforgettable turn, and indicates the kind of third act he could’ve had as a character actor had he chosen that path.

‘Sing Your Song: Harry Belafonte’ (2012)

Stream it on Vudu. Rent or buy it on Amazon and Apple TV.

Instead, he chose to keep fighting. This late-in-life biographical documentary from the director Susanne Rostock, made with the participation and blessing of the man himself, veers occasionally into hagiography and skims over the messier aspects of his long and complicated life. But there’s so much to celebrate, you can hardly blame its makers. Edited at a snappy clip from a wealth of rich archival materials (film and TV clips, home movies, newsreels) and both new and archival interviews, “Sing Your Song” celebrates Belafonte the artist, but even more, celebrates the man — and a life spent working for the causes he believed in, often putting his own career and comfort at risk.

‘BlacKkKlansman’ (2018)

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Belafonte’s final film appearance came, significantly, in a work of protest by a provocative Black filmmaker. He appears in the cameo role of the civil rights activist Jerome Turner in Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning adaptation of the Ron Stallworth memoir — but he’s also playing himself, imparting history and knowledge of the struggle for civil rights. In his single, haunting scene, Belafonte exhibits not only his skills and charisma as an actor, but the gravitas of his decades in the trenches of the struggle.

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