There have been umpteen films and documentaries heralding African-American achievement. So what makes HBO's "The Black List" different?
Sure, there's the firepower of big names: Colin Powell, Toni Morrison, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Serena Williams.
There are stories of struggle, of racism, of grace under fire, of pure triumph.
But what makes "The Black List" stand out is its intimate simplicity. There are no archival videos, no funky film angles, no contextual narration after the intro. Journalist Elvis Mitchell, who hosts an interview show on Turner Classic Movies, and portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders chose to simply focus on the 22 subjects themselves.
Each person of prominence, sitting in front of a drape, is edited down to three to five minutes. They talk directly into a camera dubbed "the Inquisitor" featuring a screen of Mitchell in a separate room questioning them. But you never hear the questions or see Mitchell.
"In effect, it's 90 minutes of talking heads," Mitchell said last Thursday before a screening of the film at the Woodruff Arts Center. "But it works. It's a film about the breadth of the African-American experience that doesn't sentimentalize black achievement."
Mitchell said getting many of the celebrities to help out was not that difficult given the basis of what they were trying to achieve. "People weren't there to sell a book or espouse a political point or further an agenda," he said. "They were just there to talk."
They chose the name "The Black List" on purpose to try to counter the negative connotation the phrase has by its every definition. "So much about black culture," Mitchell said, "is about reclaiming and putting a positive spin on the negative. We built our own culture because we were stolen from our cultures."
Here are excerpts from the interviews:
"When I went to piano lessons every Thursday, I had to walk through Clark Atlanta College, Atlanta University campus and Morehouse College campus. I was in awe of these buildings. And I can remember coming from the Ashbury Street Theater one Saturday. There was Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, the president of Morehouse, walking across the campus. And I'm 20 yards behind him. And I find myself trying to walk like Benjamin Elijah Mays."
— Atlanta native Vernon Jordan, lawyer and close adviser to President Clinton during his administration
"[Before James Brown,] there were maybe two or three blacks who went mainstream. Nat King Cole, people like that. But James Brown was the first one to make mainstream go black. It's hard to grow up with that reference to manhood and not internalize it ... I learned manhood from James Brown."
— Rev. Al Sharpton
"It was funny being a black soldier in Fort Benning with your wife in Birmingham in 1964. Driving a Volkswagen, one of those foreign cars with a New York state license plate and an LBJ sticker was a chancy thing to do. One time I got caught speeding from Birmingham to Fort Benning... I got pulled over by a state trooper. I could see him in the rear view mirror. Clomp, clomp, clomp, knee high boots. He looked down at me, this black man behind the wheel of a Volkswagen. He said, 'Boy, you need to get out of here as fast as you can.' [Chuckles] That's one of the kindest things ever done for me."
— Former Secretary of State Colin Powell
"Just letting in Jackie Robinson into baseball didn't mean we were equal. That didn't happen until the 1970s. Why do I say the '70s? That's when you started seeing bad black baseball players. That's true equality, the equality to suck like the white man! That's really Martin Luther King's dream coming true! Guys sucking!"
— Actor and comedian Chris Rock
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