Brow Beat

Harry Belafonte Gives a Rousing, Eloquent Primer on Hollywood’s Racial History

Harry Belafonte, the legendary singer, actor, and activist, received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award on Saturday night. The occasion was the Academy’s 2014 Governors Awards, where Belafonte took the podium to deliver an eloquent, utterly absorbing account of Hollywood’s racial history and his own hopes for the industry.

Belafonte began by condemning Hollywood’s early penchant for racism, noting that films like Birth of a Nation, Song of the South, and Tarzan of the Apes  saw “the virus of racial inferiority, of never wanting to be identified with anything African, swept into the psyche of its youthful observers.” But the actor concluded on an optimistic note, trumpeting film’s ability to craft a new, more progressive vision of society. Belafonte’s long history in movies—he was one of the first actors to tackle racial politics in Hollywood—only makes his wise, thoughtful words more moving.