Editor’s Note: On Saturday, November 8, Harry Belafonte received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at their annual Governors Awards. Previous winners include Angelina Jolie, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. We republish his remarks here.
America has come a long way since Hollywood in 1915 gave the world the film Birth of a Nation. By all measure, this cinematic work was considered the greatest film ever made. The power of moving pictures to impact on human behavior was never more powerfully evidenced than when, after the release of this film, American citizens went on a murderous rampage. Races were set one against the other. Fire and violence erupted. Baseball bats and billy clubs bashed heads. Blood flowed in [the] streets of our cities, and lives were lost.
The film also gained the distinction to be the first film ever screened at the White House. The then-presiding President Woodrow Wilson openly praised the film, and the power of this presidential anointing validated the film’s brutality and its grossly distorted view of history. This, too, further inflamed the nation’s racial divide.
1935, at the age of 8, sitting in a Harlem theater, I watched in awe and wonder the incredible feats of the white superhero: Tarzan of the Apes. Tarzan was a sight to see. This porcelain Adonis, this white liberator, who could speak no language, swinging from tree to tree, saving Africa from the tragedy of destruction by a black indigenous population of inept, ignorant, void-of-any-skills population governed by ancient superstitions, with no heart for Christian charity.
Through this film, the virus of racial inferiority, of never wanting to be identified with anything African, swept into the psyche of its youthful observers. And for the years that followed, Hollywood brought abundant opportunity for black children in their Harlem theaters to cheer Tarzan and boo Africans.
Native Americans, our Indian brothers and sisters, fared no better. And at the moment, Arabs ain’t lookin’ so good.
But these encounters set other things in motion. It was an early stimulus to the beginning of my rebellion, a rebellion against injustice and human distortion and hate. How fortunate for me that the performing arts became the catalyst that fueled my desire for social change. In its pursuit, I came upon fellow artists, like the great actor and my hero, singer-humanist Paul Robeson, painter Charles White, dancer Katherine Dunham, [the] historian’s superior academic mind Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, social strategist and educator Eleanor Roosevelt, writers Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. They all inspired me. They excited me. Deeply influenced me. And they were also my moral compass.
It was Robeson who said, as you heard in the film earlier, ‘Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. They are civilization’s radical voice.’ This Robeson environment sounded like a desired place to be. And given the opportunity to dwell there has never disappointed me.
For my like of activism and commitment to social change, the opposition has been fiercely punitive. Some who’ve controlled institutions of culture and commentary have at times used their power to not only distort truth, but to punish the truth-seekers. With interventions like McCarthyism and the blacklist, Hollywood, too, has sadly played its part in these tragic scenarios. And on occasion, I have been one of its targets.
However, from the cultural environment that gave us all this social drama and all those movies—Birth of a Nation, Tarzan of the Apes, Song of the South, to name but a few—today’s cultural harvest yields a sweeter fruit: Defiant Ones, Schindler’s List, Brokeback Mountain, 12 Years a Slave and many more. And all of this happening at the dawning of technological creations that would give artists boundless regions of possibilities to give us deeper insights into human existence.
How fortunate for me that I have lived long enough for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to have chosen to bestow this honor upon me. Tonight is no casual encounter for me. Along with the trophy of honor, there is another layer that gives this journey this kind of wonderful Hollywood ending. To be rewarded by my peers for my work for human rights and civil rights and for peace—well, let me put this way: It powerfully mutes the enemy’s thunder.
Approaching 88 years of age, how truly poetic that as I joyfully glow with my fellow honorees, we should have in our midst as one of our celebrators a man who did so much in his own life to redirect the ship of racial hatred and American culture. His efforts made the journey a bit easier. Ladies and gentlemen, I refer to my friend—my elderly friend—Sidney Poitier.
I thank the Academy and its Board of Governors for this honor, for this recognition. I really wish I could be around for the rest of this century to see what Hollywood does with the rest of the century. Maybe, just maybe, it could be civilization’s game changer. After all, Paul Robeson said, ‘Artists are the radical voice of civilization.’ Each and every one of you in this room, with your gifts and your power and your skills, could perhaps change the way in which our global humanity mistrusts itself. Perhaps we as artists and as visionaries, for what’s better in the human heart and the human soul, could influence citizens everywhere in the world to see the better side of who and what we are as a species.
I thank each and every one of you for this honor, and to my fellow honorees, I could have had no better company than to have shared this evening with each of you. Thank you very much.