‘Movies. White people sit around all day thinking up that s**t. And then they believe it!” That’s Harry Belafonte speaking in the most powerful film role of his career, playing a lethal black gangster in Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996, now back for timely viewing on Blu-Ray from Arrow Releasing). This is not exotic Calypso Harry, beloved by white liberals for Caribbean crooning. Belafonte created a characterization for the ages — a suave yet surly black man committed to opposing every form of oppression that he has known. Named Seldom Seen for his stealth and uncommon boldness, he embodies the African-American “entrepreneur” ideal as the multitasking proprietor of the jazz nightspot The Hey Hey Club, which doubles as a gambling joint. He also owns a neighborhood cab company, runs numbers, and peddles weed. He is as fearless as he is feared, but it is Seldom Seen’s daring that makes him a classic movie figure — he is, finally, a sympathetic monster.
The “sympathy” is of special interest today. Belafonte, who was formerly known as a U.S. civil-rights activist, currently identifies as a supporter of Venezuelan Communist dictator Hugo Chávez and has endorsed presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The mystery of how Belafonte evolved is rooted in Seldom Seen, a role molded from the sublimated anger that informs today’s Black Lives Matter resentment. Yet the generation that knows Jim Crow America only from hearsay ought to know what Belafonte explicates in this aggrieved, damaged, nonpareil persona.
When Seldom Seen speaks, Belafonte utters some of the most scathing observations ever heard in an American film. (His disquisition on death surely inspired August Wilson’s praise-blasphemy in King Hedley II.) Seldom Seen indicts FDR as well as Marcus Garvey. What Samuel L. Jackson’s belligerence reduces to vulgarity, Seldom Seen endows with specific, socially based malice. Not just angry, he invests his ire with pain. This allows Belafonte to go where his peer Sidney Poitier could not; his poisonous soliloquies are the heart of Kansas City, voicing dreamed-for revolution as well as the terror of revenge. While the Millennial Belafonte may proclaim this vagrant hope, Seldom Seen conveyed its spiritual cost. That the jazz-infused Kansas City has a hip-hop ending is perfect: We watch Seldom Seen, still living Kansas’s Plessy v. Ferguson segregation, as a lonely man counting his blood money.
Belafonte and Altman, working before the era of wokeness and politically correct orthodoxy, had the impudent genius to be provocative. As collaborators, they transcended the mid-century tradition of Hollywood movies that saw race as either a “problem” or a matter of “protest.” They made sure Seldom Seen would galvanize the film’s abrasive yet trenchant Depression-era narrative.
Seldom Seen comes into view as the central figure in this oblique gangster tale: White telegraph worker Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) begs him to spare the life of her husband, petty hood Johnny O’Hara (Dermot Mulroney). When her entreaty is refused, Blondie kidnaps Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), the dope-fiend wife of a Kansas City politician, hoping to put legal pressure — or backroom enforcement — on Seldom Seen.
This is how Altman and Belafonte look into the dark heart of American race relations — which is to say, the vibrant, blood-pumping impulses of competition and survival. Seldom Seen’s hate story contrasts Blondie’s love story. (The moment he comes kissing-close to Johnny dares suggest the strange intimacy of race hatred.) In Leigh’s equally original characterization, Blondie is enamored of Jean Harlow and Hollywood ideas of glamour; a photo of her and Johnny, striking a Bonnie-and-Clyde pose, portrays the pitiful autonomy sought by the gullible working class, which is no less pathetic than Carolyn’s desiccated bourgeois marriage. Blondie’s movingly intimate female revelations with Carolyn are audacious — recalling Altman’s artsy, quasi-feminist 3 Women (1977) — but Kansas City connects them to an even wider view of American intimacy.
The film’s interracial storyline (including a teenage Charlie Parker and his mother) follows the improvisatory discipline of jazz and how it expresses American plurality and independence, the individual proclaiming himself among community — the essential Altman theme.
No Millennial filmmaker seems capable of Belafonte and Altman’s insight about society and personality; identity politics have muddled contemporary media. It’s crucial to realize that Seldom Seen’s charitable impulse has been lynched; he no longer has the black man’s “loving heart” that Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) talked about in Do the Right Thing or the fraternal instinct of Tory Kittles’s Slim in Dragged across Concrete. Still, Seldom Seen is a real mover, not a political poseur like Jesse Jackson, Danny Glover, Cornel West, and Chuck D, who display their frustration ineffectually by pinning their hopes on Bernie Sanders.
Altman could recognize this anger through his sensitivity to varieties of American experience, but Belafonte has never allowed himself to publicly admit it until giving this great, seething performance. These two beloved American artists had planned to join forces on a revision of Amos ’n’ Andy, but this authentic tragic vision is their legacy. That’s why Seldom Seen’s profane indictment of Hollywood — “White people sit around all day thinking up that s**t. And then they believe it!”– applies to Green Book, Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave, Parasite, Joker, Knives Out, and more.