The event where he was honoured was The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences 2014 Governors Awards, held at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at the Hollywood & Highland Center, and as was befitting the stature of the 87 year old veteran, the auditorium was filled with many of the film industry's leading lights and power players, including Steve McQueen, the black British director of the Oscar winning '12 Years A Slave', who said of Belafonte, "He basically took those powers of celebrity and fame, and used them for a bigger cause than just his own." Leading actress Susan Saradon observed that Belafone was "the ultimate example of a great artist and a lifelong social activist".
The man himself took to the stage to accept his Oscar and proceeded to deliver a 12 minute speech that was eloquent, insightful, heartfelt, honest (at times brutally so for the mainly white Hollywood establishment in attendance), yet ending on a positive note for the future of the film business. Touching upon his youth in Harlem watching 'Tarzan' movies with its distortion of images of Africans and the celebration of the D.W. Griffith film 'Birth Of A Nation' in 1915, generally viewed as a classic motion picture, even with its overly racist views as shown on screen with the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. In telling these stories Belafonte was showing how far we have all come in the journey for equality and mutual respect, acknowledging there is still more work to be done. He urged the film makers of the future to take the lead in making a change for the better.
"I really wish I could be around for the rest of the century, to see what Hollywood does with the rest of the century. Maybe, just maybe it could be civilization's game changer. After all, as Paul Robeson said, artists are the radical voice of civilization. Each and every one of you in this room, with your gift and power and skills, could perhaps change the way in which our global humanity mistrusts itself. Perhaps we as artists and visionaries for what's better in the human heart and the human soul could influence citizens everywhere in the world to see the better side of who and what we are as a species."
A rather touching and poignant moment occurred during his speech when Belafonte mentioned his long time and very close friend, actor Sidney Poitier, thanking him for his outstanding work in Hollywood and for his own compassionate endeavours in activism. He called the Oscar winner up on stage to join him. The two iconic figures standing side by side drew huge applause and represented how much people of colour had achieved within the Hollywood system and beyond.
You can experience Harry Belafonte's profound speech right here.