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HARRY BELAFONTE : Humanitarian, singer, writer, producer. Harry Belafonte is still exercising his voice to deal with problems close to his heart. 'So much of my life is spent dealing with issues of race,' he says.

August 07, 1994|Donna Rosenthal | Donna Rosenthal is a free-lance writer based in Berkeley.

SAN FRANCISCO — Harry Belafonte nominally lives in New York, but his artistic and humanitarian projects take him all over the globe--helping to immunize African children, meeting with Crips and Bloods in South-Central Los Angeles to help them maintain their truce, galvanizing the U.N. General Assembly with speeches about helping the planet's troubled and needy youths.

Today, as it happens, he is in the Bay Area, wearing the hats of humanitarian and UNICEF special ambassador--meeting with George Lucas at his Skywalker Ranch to discuss ways to use cutting-edge Hollywood technology to help UNICEF further the causes of needy children--and of director, scouting locations for his upcoming Turner Broadcasting movie "Port Chicago," about a little-known incident during World War II with dire consequences for African American sailors.

Over lunch at Lucas' vast spread at Skywalker Ranch, Belafonte and Lucas put their heads together about technological ways to change education and help needy kids. "We talked about a possible economic war on the information superhighway," Belafonte says, "and I stressed the need not to ignore poor children who will be opted out of the new system. We agree that information (especially interactive methods of education) should be accessible to all children of America." The meeting went well, Belafonte and Lucas both say afterward, and the two are planning to meet again in the fall to plan strategies.

On the drive south from Skywalker, Belafonte smoothly shifts his perspective to director preparing to shoot a film. "Port Chicago," which will begin filming next year, is set at the naval base on Suisun Bay near Concord (now part of the Concord Naval Weapons Station) that was the site of a horrifying event in 1944--an event that Belafonte, 67, nearly experienced.

After dropping out of a Harlem high school, Belafonte joined the U.S. Navy to fight in World War II. The Navy was segregated at the time, and in 1944, before his imminent transfer to Port Chicago, two military ships loaded with ammunition exploded there, killing 320 people, mostly black seamen, leveling Port Chicago and breaking windows in the St. Francis Hotel, 35 miles away in San Francisco. "It was the worst home-front disaster of World War II," says Belafonte, "but almost no one knows about it or what followed."

When, after the blast, black seamen refused to load ammunition under the same unsafe, segregated conditions that sparked the explosion, 50 of them were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to prison; after the war, under pressure from NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, the Navy reduced their sentences.

"The Port Chicago mutiny was one of America's ugliest miscarriages of justice, the largest mass trial in naval history and a national disgrace," says Belafonte. He credits Ted Turner and his staff with having the courage to put the story on television.

The Lucas educational project and the Turner TV movie are just two of several projects--most sharing a deep concern for the human condition--that Belafonte has on his front burner right now. The others include:

* Co-producing, with Jonathan Demme directing, a feature film version of "Parting the Waters" for TriStar, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Taylor Branch book about America during the Martin Luther King Jr. years.

* Producing a film for the BBC and HBO called "Black Tuesday," about a black soldier in the segregated U.S. Army in World War II who was unjustly charged with rape and hung in London.

* Co-writing, with Robert Altman, a film examining racism in America during the "Amos 'n' Andy" era called "Cork."

* Playing himself in "Pret-a-Porter," Altman's upcoming satire on the fashion industry.

* Playing a '30s gangster in "Kansas City," Altman's next directorial effort.

* Planning a world concert tour, possibly as early as fall of '95, incorporating music from Third World cultures that he has worked in. An album of the music is also in the works, for next year.

* Leading a fact-finding mission in Rwanda and Zaire, for which he leaves Tuesday, to investigate the needs of refugee children, in his role as UNICEF's goodwill ambassador.

As fiery and certainly as productive as ever, Belafonte is nonetheless keenly aware of his age. "I'm not fearful of death, I'm really not," he says wistfully. "I'm just frustrated by the nagging demands of so much to do and so little time. When I was 40 looking at 60, it looked a thousand years away. Now 80 looks like a week away." With great intensity, he vows, "I'm not going out with a whimper."

And in that light, he admits, "I haven't been so busy since the civil rights movement." Belafonte--never one to seek the spotlight, and in fact someone who dislikes publicity and doesn't generally even employ a publicist--was extremely visible in the '60s with marches, voter registrations, boycotts and arrests, as well as advising and fund-raising for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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