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Posted by Caribbean World Magazine on 25 March 2021 | 0 Comments

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25 March 2021

Next year, Island in the Sun - the groundbreaking film about race relations set in the Caribbean - celebrates 65 years since its release.   

"Island in The Sun" was the title song for a controversial 1957 film about race relations and interracial romance. Harry "King of Calypso" Belafonte starred in the film (with Joan Fontaine) and wrote and performed the song. The island is a fictional Caribbean one named Santa Marta. Directed by Robert Rossen, the film is centred on a rich landowner's son, Maxwell Fleury (James Mason), who is fighting for political office against black labor leader David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte). As if the contentious election weren't enough, there are plenty of scandals to go around: Boyeur has a secret white lover (Joan Fontaine) and Fleury's wife, Sylvia (Patricia Owens), is also having an affair. And then, of course, there's the small matter of a recently murdered aristocrat (Michael Rennie). 

Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck by 20th Century Fox, the film was based on the novel of the same name by Alec Waugh. Starring Harry Belafonte, James Mason, Dorothy Dandridge, and Dame Joan Collins, it was one of the most racially controversial films shown in Hollywood for its historical timeframe and filmed in the lush West Indies. 

Harry Belafonte performs the lead song, its lyrics, almost an homage, which begins slowly and at its end is immediately followed with the mid-tempo, infectious, performance of steel drums. The film borders on salacious scandal, politics, the mixed-blood heritage of the Caribbean and interracial relations, with multiple storylines, each of which is easy to follow. While the cast boasts an impressive roster of actors, there is an additional silent character, the Fleury Plantation House - the stately ruins at Farley Hill which are a relic of the British era and once the home of wealthy slave owners. It is a racially-charged script that tackles the clashing of two very different worlds. Manic, erratic, volatile and on the cusp of being unhinged, Fleury has deep-rooted emotions of insecurity and blatantly abuses his status. 

Many reviews claim that “Island in the Sun” moves slowly in dialogue and there are some unexplained elements to the story that are, no doubt, simply of its time. interracial characters were not permitted to kiss on film, so a subtle workaround was used to punctuate attraction. Due to the inclusion of mixed-race relationships, Island in The Sun was banned in areas of America’s south and was protested by the Ku Klux Klan.  

Harry Belafonte was born for this role, he claimed - and it certainly brought him to worldwide attention. Born in Harlem New York and relocated to Jamaica at an early age, the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) Harold (Harry) Belafonte began as a jazz singer and went on to perform on Broadway. Nicknamed the “Calypso King” forpopularising calypso in the US, he became a lifelong fighter for civil rights and was a man admired for his great dignity, courage and restraint.

Island in the Sun’s film score featured plenty of Caribbean style music, bringing it to the attention of a whole new global audience. The title song “Island in The Sun” captured the hearts and minds of film-goers far away from the Caribbean islands.  Easy going lyrics detail the simple life of a Caribbean island, with hopes that this lifestyle will endure. In the film, the song is played over a montage of scenes of island life. The film, and the Belafonte album in which the song appears, were both released in 1957. 

In the past 65 years, “Island in the Sun” has become synonymous with the Caribbean’s natural riches and laid-back character and the track is often used in promo films, shows and musicals. The song has had a lasting effect, with Chris Blackwell and his partners naming their record label Island Records after this song. Based in Jamaica, the label was founded in 1959. 

The song has also been covered by at least 40 artists from all corners of the globe, including The Righteous Brothers, The Merrymen, and José Carreras. The Paragons, a ska group out of Kingston, Jamaica, turned the song into a Jamaican anthem with their 1967 cover of the song on their debut album On theBeach. 

Belafonte himself released an updated version of the song in 2017 in When Colors Come Together. Belafonte's son David wrote the new lyrics, and his grandchildren sang backing vocals with a children's choir.