A Documentary Lets the Stories of Black Luminaries Speak for Themselves
“They think I’m Jewish,” he says. “I’m in the Jewish book of famous people. But as far as, you know, on the professional level, I think it’s pretty common knowledge that I’m half black or whatever. I was never really fazed by the, sort of, the color barrier, you know?”
Slash, the former lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses, is talking. The son of a black mother and a white father, he is the first among the 23 renowned people who muse, confess and tell stories in “The Black List: Volume 1,” a 90-minute documentary scheduled to have its television premiere on HBO on Monday night. A collaboration between the portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who directed it, and the film critic Elvis Mitchell, who did the interviews, it consists of a series of portraits capturing the range of what is often called the black experience.
The subjects include Sean Combs, Lou Gossett Jr., Vernon Jordan, Toni Morrison, Bill T. Jones, Serena Williams, Chris Rock, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Colin L. Powell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Suzan-Lori Parks and Keenen Ivory Wayans.
Not everyone is as well known to the general public. Zane, a best-selling author of erotic fiction, gets a turn here, as does Mahlon Duckett, a former Negro league baseball player. Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, says: “One of the funniest experiences I had when I began working in the art world is that people always assumed I worked for Thelma Golden, not that I was Thelma Golden. The kind of dismissal that comes from just people’s sense that they don’t imagine you are who you are actually has been one of the most powerful and liberating things for me in my work.”
A minimalist film, without narration and with very little on the screen except people talking, “The Black List” (which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year) derives its considerable energy and elegance from its subjects. Mr. Mitchell, the host of the new TCM interview series “Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence” and a former film critic for The New York Times, is never on screen. Rather, Mr. Mitchell said, he and Mr. Greenfield-Sanders played their hands behind the scenes.
The title “The Black List” is a play on words, meant to overturn the negative connotations of the term “blacklist.” This month the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, began an exhibition by Mr. Greenfield-Sanders of his “Black List” series of photographic portraits. Mr. Greenfield-Sanders, widely known for his portraits of artists and celebrities, which often appear in Vanity Fair, also photographed the wounded Iraq veterans featured in the HBO documentary “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq.”
The “Black List” portraits will eventually be shown in 10 cities around the country, with a stop at the Brooklyn Museum in November. Next month the 25 portraits, along with first-person essays by their subjects, will be brought together in a book, “The Black List,” to be published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster.
The film shows Richard D. Parsons, the chairman of Time Warner, recalling the time he accidentally burned down his house when he was a child, something that won him extra attention from his grandmother. Mr. Sharpton talks about his favorite scripture and what he learned from James Brown about embracing controversy. (“I learned manhood from James Brown,” he says.) Faye Wattleton, a women’s rights advocate, laments that her daughter missed growing up with the solidarity and values exemplified by an all-black community in the days before desegregation.
“You’re always black,” Mr. Rock says. “There’s always going to kind of be an overreaction one way or the other regarding your presence, be it good or bad.” A few beats later, he says that the “true, true equality” is the equality to be as bad as “the white man,” adding, “That’s really Martin Luther King’s dream coming true.”
Mr. Mitchell said he envisioned “The Black List” as a response to past documentaries about race that tended to be soaked in politics and sociology, with victims and experts front and center. He simply asked the subjects all the things he wanted to know about them, he said.
“What you tend not to see are films on black people radiating in the pleasure of their success and telling their stories,” he said. “You come to the point whenever you see a black person on television, it’s either a comedy or some tragic issue being spoken to. You wouldn’t think that black people could get through a competently managed day, let alone being successful at it.”
Not that Mr. Mitchell buys into the notion of a so-called postracial society, as evidenced by Senator Barack Obama’s political ascendancy or the rise of a black middle class. Mr. Powell, in the film, speaks to that issue.
“It can’t be all over as long as we have young African-American boys and girls who are not able to get the quality education they need,” he says, “or are still being held back because people are looking down on them.”
Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Greenfield-Sanders spoke in an interview at the table in Mr. Greenfield-Sanders’s kitchen, a sun-filled room in his East Village town house (a converted rectory), which doubles as his studio.
Mr. Greenfield-Sanders said he got the first whiff of the “Black List” idea as he sat there a few years ago chatting with Ms. Morrison for another photographic venture and she suggested that he shoot a book of black divas. He said her suggestion started him ruminating more broadly “about the black experience that I know” from friends like Ms. Wattleton, Ms. Golden and Mr. Jones, the choreographer.
He reached out to Mr. Mitchell, a neighbor as well a friend, and they traded ideas over lunch at a Thai restaurant around the corner. By the end of their meal they had 175 names on a napkin and a plan. They began contacting subjects, striving for a mix of disciplines, ages, perspectives. Mr. Mitchell did the interviews. Mr. Greenfield-Sanders did the portraits.
“The Black List” ends up capturing the feeling of watching and listening to people think out loud.
“Almost all of the African-American writers that I know were very much uninterested in one area of the world, which is white men,” Ms. Morrison says. “That frees up a lot. It frees up the imagination, because you don’t have that gaze, you know. And when I say white men, I don’t mean just the character but I mean the establishment, the reviewers, the publishers and the people who are in control. So once you erase that from your canvas you can really play.”
Serena Williams talks, too, about the uninformed gaze. “I said once I am the most underestimated eight-time Grand Slam champion ever,” she says.
“It’s a lot more than just hitting the ball as hard as you can,” she continues. “It’s all about strategy and moving your opponent and just really figuring them out. Like I never get credit for mental, and I just, it’s, you know, frustrating. But at the end of the day, I am very happy with me and I’m very happy with my results.”
The enterprise has been so much fun that Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Greenfield-Sanders have no intention of stopping just yet. HBO is sponsoring a “Who’s on Your Black List” contest, which invites the public to submit videos of people they nominate to be filmed, interviewed and photographed for more “Black List” volumes. Information is at whosonyourblacklist.com.
Their plan, Mr. Greenfield-Sanders said, is to keep churning out more lists of people — women, Hispanics — but to keep Volume 1’s look and template.
“It’s against every rule of modern cinema, in a sense,” he said of this new franchise. “This is just saying I trust this person’s story is interesting enough, that his or her face is interesting enough to look at for five minutes, and I’m going to be engaged.” A version of this article appeared in print on August 23, 2008, on page B7 of the New York edition.