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HBO Show to Gauge African-American Experience

Program interviews major African-American figures.

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The 22 subjects of “The Black List: Volume One,” a documentary making its debut Monday on HBO, are a varied group, united only by their not-insignificant professional achievements — and the color of their skin.

This story first appeared in the August 25, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We didn’t just want sports and entertainment people,” says Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who directed the film. “We needed people like Thelma Golden [director and chief curator of the Studio Museum of Harlem] and Faye Wattleton [president of the Center for the Advancement of Women].”

The Black List Project, which spawned the HBO film, also encompasses an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston through Oct. 26, as well as a book that is to be published by Atria in September.

“Volume One” of the documentary is a highly personal assemblage of short stories on race, struggle and accomplishment. Greenfield-Sanders filmed the likes of Colin Powell, Serena Williams, Al Sharpton, Golden, Lorna Simpson, Chris Rock and Richard Parsons in the same stark style for which his portraits are known.

“We didn’t have an agenda or a set list of questions,” says Elvis Mitchell, the film critic and NPR correspondent who conducted the interviews. “We decided it should be about the African-American experience in the 21st century. Anyone who gets to be successful, especially if they’re a black person, has a story to tell.”

Parsons, chairman of Time Warner, describes burning down his house when he was a kid — to the ground. It was an accident, he says. From then on, he fell under the influence of his grandmother, who “used to keep an eye on me so I wouldn’t burn her house down” and frequently reminded him to “‘be a credit to your race.’”

Louis Gossett Jr. recounts the disappointment he felt when winning an Oscar didn’t open the doors he hoped it would. “[He] is so talented and he faded from the spotlight before he wanted to,” Mitchell says. “There’s a bit of melancholy. Each [interview] has its own emotional tone.”

Greenfield-Sanders and Mitchell say they were able to land just about every interview on their wish lists. “We wanted Sidney Poitier and had long talks with him on the phone,” Mitchell says. “He said he wouldn’t do it until he finished his book. We wanted Barack Obama. He hadn’t declared his presidency yet [when work on the project began].”

There was one subject on which the filmmakers couldn’t agree, however. “The biggest point of contention was Al Sharpton,” Greenfield-Sanders says. Showing little of the bluster and swagger that is his trademark, Sharpton is surprising in the film when he confesses that he “learned manhood from James Brown.”

A younger generation of successful African-Americans still seems to question its self-worth. “My whole life I just wanted to be somebody,” says Sean Combs, while Rock claims that true equality will be the ability to succeed by being mediocre, like the white man.

Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, admits that her race has “a fear of our own brilliance and a fear of our own possibility. A lot of times we forget who we are.”

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