Friday, July 19, 2024

“FOLLOWING HARRY”

THE STORY – An intimate portrait of Harry Belafonte whose work dedicated to social justice continued until his death in 2023 at age 96. The film allows audiences a window into the lived experiences of both his public and private life, dating from the killing of Trayvon Martin more than a decade ago and taking us on a journey to Florida, to Ferguson, to Ghana, and, finally, to Harry’s home in New York City.

THE CAST – Harry Belafonte, Carmen Perez, Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour, Phillip Agnew, Steven Pargett, Aloe Blacc, Jasiri X, Aja Monet, RodStarz, Purvi Shaw, Tef Poe, Tory Russell, Dr. Cornell West, Jesse Williams, Gina Belafonte, Thenjiwe McHarris, Angela Davis, Rev William Barber, Paula Mendez, Kerry Kennedy, Matt Post, Kazu Haga, Jindai Joseph, Sean Pica, Choir Master Joe, Rosario Dawson & Chuck D & Talib Kweli

THE TEAM Susanne Rostock (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 95 Minutes


“Following Harry” is the latest celebrity documentary to make the rounds, this time premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. This one is about the late Harry Belafonte, the award-winning singer and actor who passed away in 2023 at the age of 96 after the documentary was completed. Belafonte was among the few who’d obtained an EGOT, but he was also well-known for his social activism, which continued until his death.

In “Following Harry,” filmmaker Susanne Rostock showcases Belafonte’s last 12 years of life. Because this is not the kind of film that covers the individual’s entire life – which can be exhausting for feature-length documentaries – it ensures a focus on certain aspects of Belafonte’s life. Here, we see him help and mentor young, modern activists in the realm of social justice. Overall, “Following Harry” is a fairly stirring portrait of an artist-activist told by himself and by people who knew him, and it’s at its most effective when we see Belafonte be refreshingly honest and give advice to young activists.

While “Following Harry” mostly takes place in (relatively) recent history, it also points to Belafonte’s various inspirations over the years, such as Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., and Nelson Mandela. As is often the case with celebrity documentaries, “Following Harry” features a number of notable talking heads, including Aloe Blacc, Angela Davis, Jamie Foxx, and Jesse Williams. Yet, these talking heads are mostly seen throughout those 12 years instead of simply being interviewed at a set time, with some interviews clearly occurring after his death. Commentary from these individuals is interspersed with wise words and reflections from Belafonte himself, who is very open about his work as an activist.

At times, he seems to struggle in looking back on his life and wonders about the success of his efforts. He spent years advocating for causes dear to him, most notably the Civil Rights Movement, and he questions if he wasted his time in his advocacy due to the fact that racism is still so prevalent. In “Following Harry,” Belafonte appears as sort of a therapist, giving both us and his mentees ample advice that we have surely needed in this divisive time. As he explains on camera, he wants people to overcome their various fears and to use love to move forward.

While the documentary takes place over a 12-year period, the footage shown throughout runs the gamut. We see everything from the Civil Rights movement to Belafonte’s time with Nelson Mandela and other activists, and then fast-forwarding to current-day topics such as Black Lives Matter protests, the Women’s March, and school shootings. The film actually begins in 2012, shortly after the murder of Travon Martin, which leads to further activism against police brutality.

It’s easy to imagine how honored young people – people of all ages, really – felt when seeing someone of Belafonte’s legacy attending protests, marches, and the like and inspiring them to continue fighting the good fight. Per Belafonte himself, his goal was to be a “bridge” to connect younger activists to what he saw as “unfinished work” from his time. While it’s certainly interesting to see how Belafonte’s words of wisdom impacted celebrities like Jamie Foxx – who does an excellent Belafonte – and Rosario Dawson, it’s even more fascinating to see how his words affect young activists.

“Following Harry” isn’t afraid to shy away from difficult subjects and traumatic events. However, for a runtime of only 93 minutes, it tackles too many hard-hitting issues, and Rostock’s focus isn’t nearly narrow enough. Sure, it’s evident that Belafonte was passionate about many issues and advocated for them as best he could. Still, the film’s inclusion of women’s rights, politics, white suprematism, and gun violence, to name a few, is overwhelming, especially since the events presented are still relatively fresh in our minds. In addition, the film often cuts away from Belafonte for large chunks of time. It seems to be headed in another direction entirely, even though everything eventually connects to Belafonte somehow.

Rostock previously directed another documentary about Belafonte: 2011’s “Sing Your Song,” which focused on his contributions to the civil rights movement. “Following Harry” is less concerned with Belafonte’s professional accomplishments, which are really only mentioned in passing. That’s actually a good thing because we don’t need to see too much footage of his talents and accolades to appreciate his activism and work later in life. However, we see so little of his family; it would’ve been interesting to hear how they react to his activism.

Despite the flaws present in “Following Harry,” it still presents Belafonte as an admirable figure who just happened to be a celebrity. He used his platform to advocate for various causes and encouraged others to do the same. The documentary depicts him as someone deeply concerned for future generations and what they will be left with. Yet, it’s also evident he remained hopeful thanks to younger activists taking the lead. Even in his 90s, Belafonte was passionate about certain issues; you can tell he was really interested in what younger generations had to say.

The documentary’s title refers to a “passing of the torch” from him to those activists with whom he works. Instead of following him through his life, we are meant to follow his example as an activist throughout his 96 years. From his interactions with people of all ages, it’s also clear that he was a genuinely kind, passionate man who was often affectionately referred to as “Mr. B.”

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - This is a different type of celebrity documentary that focuses on Harry Belafonte's commitment to social justice and activism. Belafonte is refreshingly honest, and it's inspiring to see him give advice to young activists.

THE BAD - Tackles too many hard-hitting issues and is less interesting when cutting away from Belafonte for large chunks of time.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Documentary Feature

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Alyssa Christian
Alyssa Christian
Longtime cinephile and self-described movie snob who’s probably too obsessed with awards season. Also an actor, writer, flutist, and vegan.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>This is a different type of celebrity documentary that focuses on Harry Belafonte's commitment to social justice and activism. Belafonte is refreshingly honest, and it's inspiring to see him give advice to young activists.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Tackles too many hard-hitting issues and is less interesting when cutting away from Belafonte for large chunks of time.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-documentary-feature/">Best Documentary Feature</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"FOLLOWING HARRY"