Belafonte in the Sun

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Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine in the final scene of Island in the Sun (1957)

After the first installment of my planned two-part tribute to Harry Belafonte, who died a month ago at the age of 96, two weeks of nonsense intervened. First came the coronation of Charles III—the pomp and circumstance troubled only slightly by a gaggle of boisterous protesters outside Westminster Abbey and a furtive cameo within the church from another Harry (Windsor).

Belafonte’s parents were born in Jamaica as subjects of the British Empire. They emigrated to the United States, where their son was born in 1927. Belafonte spent most of the 1930s living with his grandmother back in Jamaica and thought of himself as Jamaican “native son of sorts.”

The French knighted Belafonte a year-and-a-half before he died. The British didn’t, conveniently couldn’t because he wasn’t a citizen of the United Kingdom or of a Commonwealth country that allowed such honors. Had some new protocol been concocted so as to enable a knighthood for Belafonte, I’ll bet he would have refused it, not least on account of Britain’s brazen rejection of Jamaica’s repeated petitions for reparations: No Sir, Harry.

The weekend after the royal foolishness in Westminster Abbey, the Eurovision Song Contest landed on the Island Kingdom. That over-hyped, over-amplified spectacle of extremes was light years and sonic parsecs away from Belafonte’s brand of cool calypso His warmth was human not phantasmagorical.

Both coronation and contest required comment from the Musical Patriot. But with those costume dramas done, let’s return to Harry (Belafonte, not Windsor) in British realms: on Barbados and Grenada in 1957 before independence from Britain. (Still a full member of the Commonwealth, Grenada sent troops to march in the endless coronation military parade; a republic since 2021, Barbados kept its soldiers at home.)

In 1957 Belafonte was one of the world’s most popular entertainers, selling more records that year than either Elvis or Sinatra.

Less than a decade earlier Belafonte had been a struggling actor about to give up on his stage dreams, when he catapulted to fame thanks to a stint singing at a Manhattan bebop emporium called the Royal Roost, his unlikely debut abetted by none other than Charlie Parker. Nearly a decade on from that lateral career move, Belafonte’s celebrity now made possible a return to acting, not in the experimental theater of New York as before, but on the wide technicolor screen in Island in the Sun.

In 1953 he had acted in Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones, an adaptation of Bizet’s opera sung in English by an all-Black cast. No operatic tenor, Belafonte’s singing voice was dubbed over with that of Levern Hutcherson, who had recently sung Porgy in the first American tour of Gershwin’s musical, a work vehemently criticized by many Black intellectuals, among them W. E. B. Dubois and Duke Ellington.

Though his voice was silenced in post-production, Belafonte did sing along in Carmen Jones, as one can see in his shirtless performance of “Dis Flower.” Having a phantom voice seem to emanate from the body of the world’s most famous singer still counts as an uncanny indignity, especially perplexing when one listens to Hutcherson’s quaverings:

Three years after Carmen Jones, Belafonte had become still more famous, an even more bankable star. It was Hollywood that would send him back to the Caribbean and his voice would no longer be silenced.

In 1956 Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s older brother) published a blockbuster novel of race and romance set under the late-colonial sun shining down on the fictitious island of a Santa Marta, which Belafonte would come to see as stand-in for Jamaica. While Island in the Sun stood atop the best-seller list, Belafonte’s Calypso spent thirty-one weeks at number one on the Billboard charts. It was the first LP to sell over a million copies. As Belafonte put in his autobiography, My Song, “the Caribbean was hot”—figuratively and literally.

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The imperious chief of Twentieth Century-Fox, Darryl Zanuck bought the film rights to Waugh’s novel and beseeched Belafonte to join the production. The producer was sure that Belafonte was the only person who could take the role of the firebrand political activist, David Boyeur. If Belafonte didn’t accept, Zanuck wouldn’t make the picture at all. The singer signed on: in My Song, Belafonte described Boyeur as a “mirror image” of himself.

Something of a mess, Island in the Sun is nonetheless a landmark in Hollywood’s treatment of race. Early on in the picture, Belafonte’s Boyeur cools his relationship with an educated Black islander (Dorothy Dandridge again) and turns his romantic attentions to Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine), a daughter of the island’s still-dominant planter class. Belafonte believes that Fontaine, who was not well paid for her work in movie, took the role because of its depiction of an interracial relationship, one of two such love affairs in the overburdened plot. After the film’s release, Fontaine dealt bravely and wisely with the KKK threats that followed, but her career, or at least her star status, was effectively extinguished because of her appearance in Island in the Sun. The segregationist outrage and related controversies fueled receipts, especially in the American South. The movie returned more than double its budget.

The racist condemnation of Island in the Sun came in spite of the fact that there was no kissing across the color line or even a passing embrace. The director Robert Rossen, whom Belafonte loathed for naming names for HUAC a few years before, was a raving alcoholic. His drunken negligence made it possible for Belafonte and Fontaine to dream up and insert a sultry scene with a coconut that he cuts open with a manly machete and gives to Fontaine to drink, fixing his thirsty gaze on her lips as they touch the fruit’s flesh. He takes the coconut and drinks greedily from the same spot.

At a press conference in Trinidad organized by Zanuck before shooting began, Belafonte was accused by a local reporter of coopting calypso. Belafonte’s response, recalled in his memoir, was that the recording industry had dubbed him the King of Calypso, a title he hated but couldn’t free himself from. But Belafonte went still further: “Even if I could be the true King o Calypso, I wouldn’t want to be, because although I admire how clever and how interesting calypsonians can be in the songs they write and sing, I also find that most of those lyrics are not in the best interests of black people, because their songs are always filled with the need to make Europeans laugh at us. They glorify and dig deep into promiscuity, they go into genitalia … I’d rather sing to the honor and glory of the region, and the beauty and dignity of our women.”

The first image seen in Island in the Sun is a made-up 18th-century style map of the made-up island. There is compass prominent in the upper left corner: the world has been divided up amongst the seafaring, enslaving powers. The blare of martial trumpets and the clash of cymbals in Malcolm Arnold’s fanfare confirms, if inadvertently, the brutality of conquest and the persistence colonial power even during the transition to home rule. It’s a European vision of, and sonic introduction to, Santa Marta and therefore to British holdings in the Caribbean.

Then the screen goes black and we hear Belafonte’s unmistakable singing voice, insistent but not strained, accompanied only by a guitar. The melody is unshackled from the beat, the freedom and ease proceeding leisurely, elegant contrast to the lyric: he sings,

“This is my island in the sun / Where my people have toiled since time begun,” as we get a high aerial shot of the rugged, lush of “Santa Marta” clung to be dawn shadow—or is it twilight? The sun plays on the water, but the island is dark.

Unlike in Carmen Jones, Belafonte sings and is heard, now in his own music. (The song was coauthored by his sometime collaborator, Lord Burgess, another native New Yorker with a Caribbean mother.) The film’s title song, released first on Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean, was especially popular, ironically perhaps, in Europe. The camera descends from the airy heights to skim over the sea and reef and to the beach as the percussion swings into its genial groove. We witness men and women washing their clothes in a river and toiling in the fields. This opening documentary footage accompanied by Belafonte’s song makes for the most memorable and moving images in the film. Harry sings gently but ardently of his people in a rejoinder to the local critics of this reluctant King of Calypso: “I see woman on bended knee / cutting cane for her family.”

Belafonte performed the song later in 1957 in television appearance. Here it’s slower and cheesier than in the movie, but his voice cuts through the saccharine sheen cast by the electrified studio scrim of ersatz steel drums and warbling flutes. Though some cast doubt on his bona fides, his imaginary island in the sun is rendered real by his voice. Belafonte always recognized the irony that his music was most popular with white audiences, but even in this version there is an authenticity that defeats such aesthetic demographics as well as the silly musical arrangement and staging. Beneath the suave surface of his voice, gracious but not ingratiating, there is pride. Still farther down there is anger.

The movie’s last scene was shot on a seaside bluff in Grenada, the Atlantic waves heaping relentless white below. The anti-climax of the Belafonte-Fontaine on-screen affair is fully exposed to sun, surf, and wind: “Do you care what stupid and prejudiced people think?” Mavis asks Boyeur, and he responds: “You’ve never had to fight stupidity or prejudice.”

Boyeur rejects his would-be lover because he believes he must serve his people. He seethes with poised anger at slavery and its legacy but also, one suspects, at himself for his own dogmatic fury. Like waves, historical forces crash down on these two people of the present.

The production designers must have wanted Belafonte’s body to appear as dark as possible by fitting him in a laundered white shirt. Fontaine wears pearl earrings and a light pink dress, her bottle-blond hair safeguarded in a bun from the fierce breeze buffeting the palms. She couldn’t be whiter. Still hoping to win him over somehow, she conjures the possibility of fleeing the island they were both born on. The imperial administration readies for its withdrawal and she with it, but he cannot leave and won’t take her even if she stays: “My skin is my country.”


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at