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.