Gloria Steinem and Harry Belafonte Have HBO Specials Telling Their Fascinating Stories

By Frank Barron

Gloria Steinem.

Gloria: In Her Own Words is a documentary about Gloria Steinem, premiering August 15 on HBO. The show is a very interesting, highly personal portrait of Steinem, a major force behind the Women’s Liberation Movement starting in the ‘60s. Over the decades, her singular focus has been to fight for the rights of women around the world, which I have always believed to be a cause worth fighting for because it makes things better for everyone. There is no debate on that fact.

The film is told entirely in Steinem’s own words, through riveting new interviews and old footage from the start of the feminist movement over 40 years ago. She was outspoken then, and remains highly opinionated, as I found out last week during the HBO interview session to promote the show.

Steinem is still attractive and noted, “I’m 77. Every place I go, I tell my age, because I figure it’s like a form of coming out.”

A reporter asked what she thought about the upcoming television shows this fall, NBC’s The Playboy Club and ABC’s Pan Am, about airline stewardesses, both set in the ‘60s and showing the lives of women during a less liberating time. She reflected that “the hierarchical response has two poles — the very worst men are into sadomasochism, and the very best men are into nostalgia. So I think this is like the nostalgia industry.”

She thinks that the real question is “What is the attitude of the series? Is it aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way. Or is it really showing the problems of the past in order to show that we have come forward. I somehow think the Playboy show is maybe not doing that.”

Steinem revealed that it depends on how she feels on any given day whether she is gratified for the success that she and the other feminists had, or if she is challenged by what she still needs to do. She embodied a movement almost her entire life, but said she’s “not crazy enough to think that it was about one person. But because I symbolized it, people will come up and say to me, ‘I want to tell you how my life has changed.’ I get wonderful stories.”

When Steinem saw the HBO documentary put together, it had an impact, “because it’s really scary to give up total control and submit your life to somebody else. I think it’s so important to tell our stories. Otherwise people look at somebody who has done something and they think, ‘I couldn’t do that because they’re different than me.’ So it’s important to be truthful and tell the stories and be empowered by them. That’s my hope for this documentary. People will see an imperfect person who did this, and say, ‘Maybe I can do it too.’”

Another fascinating HBO documentary is coming in a couple of months. Sing Your Song (Oct. 17 premiere) follows the life and struggles of Harry Belafonte. It is a film about a remarkable man who had a groundbreaking career as a singer and actor, and also shows him as an activist who was on the front lines of the civil rights movement. He worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, among others, mobilizing celebrities for social justice.

Tenacious and hands-on with the causes he embraced, Belafonte also went on to participate in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. More recently he has taking action to counter gang violence, the prison system and the incarceration of youths.

His daughter, Gina Belafonte, helped produce the extraordinary film about a man she called “97 percent perfect.” Sheila Nevins, president of HBO documentaries, called him “Just iconic. You grow up with him singing, and then you realize that his song has changed to really want to make a difference in the world. His message is clear: that we can make the world a better place with passion and commitment and an honest heart.”

On hand at the Television Critics Association press tour, Belafonte said his primary hope for the film is that it will be representative of other stories “about a time when we faced dilemmas, and we faced problems, and the kind of moral forces that rose out of our community to try to make a difference.”

After a lifetime of being a political social activist, Belafonte, 84, said, “It is what we made the government do, not what the government did voluntarily. It was what we made happen in the time of America in the ’50s and ’60s.” He elaborated further about his dismay about the lack of passion or desire “to go out and force the institution of power and legislation and all of that stuff to come to grips with what they are denying us.”

When asked what he would like to say to the White House and Congress, Belafonte fired out the questions: “What happened to moral truth? What happened to moral courage? Why has it been so eliminated from our DNA? Why is it so unattainable in our current social quest and where we go? I understand the game of politics. I’ve been at it for 70 years. But politics without moral purpose, more often than not, winds up as tyranny.”

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