Harry Belafonte’s tribute to Steve McQueen

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A post by Peter Jordens.

Veteran singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte gave an elegant and moving speech at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards on January 6, 2014, introducing Best Director winner Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). He did so in part by reaching back into his own movie-going memory. The 9-minute introduction brought the audience to silence before they gave Belafonte a thunderous standing ovation.

In his tribute to McQueen, Belafonte said, “A lot’s gone on with Hollywood. A lot could be said about it. But at this moment, I think what is redeeming, what is transformative, is the fact that a genius, an artist, is of African descent, although he’s not from America, he is of America, and he is of that America which is part of his own heritage; [he] made a film called 12 Years a Slave, which is stunning in the most imperial way. So it’s a stage that enters a charge made by The Birth of a Nation, that we were not a people, we were evil, rapists, abusers, absent of intelligence, absent of soul, heart, inside. In this film, 12 Years a Slave, Steve steps in and shows us, in an overt way, that the depth and power of cinema is there for now the world to see us in another way.

I was five when I saw Tarzan of the Apes, and the one thing I never wanted to be, after seeing that film, was an African. I didn’t want to be associated with anybody that could have been depicted as so useless and meaningless. And yet, life in New York led me to other horizons, other experiences. And now I can say, in my 87th year of life, that I am joyed, I am overjoyed, that I should have lived long enough to see Steve McQueen step into this space and for the first time in the history of cinema, give us a work, a film, that touches the depths of who we are as a people, touches the depths of what America is as a country, and gives us a sense of understanding more deeply what our past has been, how glorious our future will be, and could be.

I think that the Circle Award made a wise decision picking you as the director of the year. I think we look forward in anticipation to what you do in the future. But even if you never do anything else, many in your tribe, many in the world, are deeply grateful of the time and genius it took to show us a way that it should be. Forever and eternally grateful to say that we are of African descent. Thank you.”

Belafonte’s speech is at http://www.vulture.com/2014/01/read-belafontes-moving-speech-on-race-cinema.html and at http://www.hitfix.com/in-contention/harry-belafonte-pays-tribute-to-steve-mcqueens-genius-at-nyfcc-awards.

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