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Roles that made Belafonte popular in Jamaica

By Howard Campbell
Observer writer

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

HARRY Belafonte first made his mark in the 1950s as an actor/singer. His turn in the movie Carmen Jones, and his massively successful album, Calypso, made him an international sensation.

Belafonte, whose parents are Jamaican, spent eight years of his youth in their homeland. He will receive the Order of Merit from the Jamaican government during the National Honours and Awards ceremony on October 15 at King's House.

Though Calypso and movies like Island In The Sun endeared him to Jamaicans over 60 years ago, Belafonte made his biggest silver screen splash here with his roles in Buck and the Preacher and Uptown Saturday Night.

Both movies co-starred Sidney Poitier who also directed them.

Released in 1972, Buck and the Preacher hit theatres at a time when the independent black film-maker came of age. In Jamaica, it was shown at The Carib cinema as well as The Regal and The Odeon; it continued to attract strong crowds throughout the 1980s as part of 'triple bills' at smaller houses like Rialto, Gaiety and Globe.

Set in post-Civil War America, Buck and the Preacher was the first Western to feature a mainly black cast. In the lead role was Poitier as Buck, a Civil War veteran who meets Reverend Willis Oaks Rutherford (Belafonte), a self-styed preacher with whom he shares a number of escapades.

Buck and the Preacher came just five years after Poitier's stellar performances in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and In The Heat of the Night which won Academy Awards. Buck and the Preacher was a flop in the United States but remains popular with a generation of Jamaican fans.

Two years later came Uptown Saturday Night which also starred Bill Cosby and Calvin Lockhart. Belafonte is Geechie Dan Beauford, a gangster based on Don Corleone of The Godfather, who is in a turf war with Silky Slim, played by Lockhart.

Belafonte played Geechie Dan brilliantly. In a scene from the church social when he and Lockhart are involved in a baseball game, Belafonte looks at his rival and says: “I haven't had this much fun since reform school.”

Uptown Saturday Night was a box office smash. It influenced two other movies starring Cosby and Poitier: Let's Do It Again and A Piece of the Action which also did well in Jamaica.

Harry Belafonte visited Jamaica several times during the 1970s. He was a very good friend of Michael Manley, the country's socialist prime minister.