HBO's 'Black List': Portraits in Candor

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008

From simple concepts can come complex consequences. Such is the case with "The Black List," a 90-minute HBO documentary that, despite its title, has nothing to do with alleged communists being ostracized during the Cold War.

No. The names on this "black list" are "some of today's most fascinating and influential African Americans," as HBO says, and the documentary is officially subtitled "Volume 1," because the men and women on tonight's premiere are obviously just a beginning. Further documentaries are envisioned -- though HBO has not committed to showing them except via the HBO on Demand service -- and the interviews featured are part of a "multimedia initiative" that includes a traveling exhibit of photographic portraits.

Each individual -- from Toni Morrison to Lou Gossett Jr. to Mahlon Duckett to Sean Combs -- was interviewed by critic and journalist Elvis Mitchell, pretty fascinating and influential himself (and, to comply with full disclosure, a friend). Mitchell is never seen or heard popping questions, however; as one of the producers, he selflessly eliminated himself from the film so that we hear only answers.

We see the subjects, strikingly shot against a plain backdrop as they talk about their experiences, beliefs, desires -- and the people who influenced and fascinated them.

A bit long for a talking-head parade, the film sustains one's interest because the observations and perceptions are varied, sophisticated, evocative and provocative. "There is a definition of black America but no definition of white America," says attorney and activist Vernon Jordan. "I'd rather be a lamppost in Harlem than governor of Georgia," notes basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, quoting from something he once wrote.

There is, as one would expect, much talk of parents and the wisdom they imparted -- intentionally or not. Tennis star Serena Williams "loved Muhammad Ali . . . the ultimate role model" but recalls the crucial role played by her self-taught tennis-playing father. Jordan says he was inspired by Thurgood Marshall but also remembers his mother telling him, "Reach for it, boy. Go for it."

Chris Rock, the brilliant comic and social commentator, says his father warned him bitterly, "If you have six and the white guy has five, you lose." And Abdul-Jabbar says that he dreamed of being a writer just as his father had dreamed of playing in Count Basie's band; Dad became a cop instead.

Keenen Ivory Wayans, key member of a comedy dynasty, doesn't think audiences generalize about race from comic stereotypes: "I grew up watching the Three Stooges and I never thought, 'Wow, white people are crazy.' " Sean Combs recalls his satisfaction when a gigantic poster of "that redneck Marlboro Man" in Times Square was replaced with one of him: "I stood and looked at myself for three hours."

The producers should have done us the favor of showing us that billboard -- but they chose to limit visual elements to the faces of the interviewees and occasional family or historical photos. It's an austere approach, but it helps keep the film focused on the people and what they are saying.

"Black List" opens with a surprise: Slash, the charismatic lead guitarist of Guns N' Roses (wherever they are), seems to be in the wrong place. But his mother is black, he explains, and Slash considers himself "half-black" and "stuck somewhere in the middle."

Others on the list range from former Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton (who is sorry her daughter didn't grow up in "a segregated African American community," as she herself did, because of the spirit of "togetherness" identity that engendered); Rhodes scholar and political scientist Susan Rice, who dismisses as "old-think" the idea that "what's good for blacks has to be bad for whites"; and activist Al Sharpton, encouragingly robust and serious as he discusses the role of the church in African American life and the role of James Brown in his: Sharpton says he "learned manhood" from Brown when they were younger.

Sharpton laments, however, the pseudo-macho belligerence he sees in some aspects of hip-hop, comparing "the imposed culture" of behaving like "thugs and gangsters" to the negative image promulgated by Stepin Fetchit and other toadying black personalities of the pop culture past. Sharpton also says that he ran for president knowing full well that he would lose "even if everybody running against me died."

Colin Powell, perhaps the highest-ranking celebrity in the group, is affably relaxed talking about his days in the civil rights movement, driving around the South in an old Volkswagen Beetle.

To call this film "important" makes it also sound stuffy, but it is a worthy, lively contribution to an ongoing, perhaps never-ending conversation. It also makes a fitting finale to HBO's admirable summer of Monday night documentaries -- some new, some old, all supervised by HBO executive Sheila Nevins.

This is television that matters, and that very rare thing in current TV, reality that's real.

The Black List (90 minutes) premieres on HBO tonight at 9.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company