Film industry must be held accountable, says Harry Belafonte

Monday, August 28, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — To actor and activist Harry Belafonte, films have the power to change the world for good. But they also have the power to inflict great harm.

The film industry is “perhaps the greatest force and the greatest power on earth, but it has done so many terrible things that it has yet to be held accountable for,” he said. “The impunity with which it exists, I think, has caused us a lot of problems and a lot of difficulty.”

Belafonte spoke Aug. 26 as he accepted the 2000 Freedom in Film award presented by the First Amendment Center and the Nashville Independent Film Festival. He was honored for his lifetime achievements as an artist who uses art as an instrument of social change.

One movie that severely harmed race relations in this country, Belafonte said, was D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation.”

That film “impacted upon America’s racial psyche in ways that we’ve never recovered from. As a matter of fact the way in which Hollywood has since played out [the film's] existence still sustains that mentality, that cruelty, and still sustains that misinformation.”

The first step to holding the film industry accountable for the ways in which it has negatively affected culture, Belafonte says, is creating a platform for debate on moral and First Amendment issues.

“We must find a way to begin to bring First Amendment issues into moral debate on what is being done under the banner of (the) First Amendment at the expense and the destruction of social development,” he said.

“I think all of us suffer from the absence of that debate,” Belafonte said in an interview after the awards program. “We have to talk about how to have a consistent dialogue going on this serious, serious issue: What is American cultural imperialism doing to the people of the world and [to America's] own citizens?”

Belafonte says people must also realize that they directly influence what types of films are produced.

“We have got to understand the power that we inherently have as individuals,” Belafonte said. “Americans have got to understand that we have to become much more conscious of what we’re permitting that institution to do by default — by our indifference, by our lack of taking charge and taking over what we choose to see and choose to hear and choose to impose upon [the industry] as a penalty for giving us things that corrupt us rather than enhance us.”

Belafonte has committed his life and career to challenging those things around him that he believes do not enhance the world.

“I have felt it terribly central to my existence that wherever I have the opportunity to make a difference in the way our nation does business, it would be my responsibility as a citizen to make that commitment,” he said.

That commitment has not been without consequence, Belafonte says. He was blacklisted early in his career because of his outspokenness and social activism. But, he says, he would do it all again.

“Many people think that taking a stand on social and human issues is the unpopular thing to do,” said Belafonte. “But the sacrifices that one has to make and the penalties that you pay do not begin to equate with the successes and the joys and the rewards that you get for having taken the journey.”