The Black List
Sundance Film Festival
PARK CITY -- The makers of "The Black List" call their documentary "a new kind of living, talking, evolving coffee table book," and that pretty such sums up its virtues and deficiencies.
Famed portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who made a docu about musician Lou Reed, and film critic/NPR talk show host Elvis Mitchell invited a number of prominent blacks to stand before their camera to offer a candid assessment of what being black in America is like today.
Although Mitchell conducted the interviews, his presence and voice are deliberately excluded, leaving each participant to deliver a monologue. This results in mini portraits that are rather brief, sometimes insightful, other times serendipitous, never uninteresting but often self-conscious. In other words, a coffee table book movie, which probably will work better as a show on HBO than on a screen at a film festival.
The format necessarily loses the connective tissue one ordinarily experiences in a docu. The people might or might not touch on the same topics, but no dialogue results. You wonder if Colin Powell would agree with what Rev. Al Sharpton says. You will continue to wonder. Without knowing the question being answered, you have no way to judge whether the subject is truly answering or evading the question. Politicians, and there are a few here, are infamous for doing the latter.
Consequently, what you take away from "Black List" are telling moments when a comment hits home. Filmmaker Keenen Ivory Wayans points out that blacks and whites are wired to react in completely different ways to the same stimuli. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks remarks how black audiences react differently to theater, taking a more active role in the experience.
Sharpton describes how the church once was the social center of the black community but is no longer, which has resulted in the negative influences of gangsta culture. For basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, that social center was Harlem, serving as a "cradle" and "home" to blacks born in New York.
Comic-actor Chris Rock notes that true integration didn't come to Major League Baseball when Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers; it came when mediocre black ballplayers made it to the big leagues. Only then did blacks have the "license to be bad and come back and learn."
Attorney and political maven Vernon Jordan declares, "There is a definition of black America but no definition of white America." Actor Louis Gossett Jr. relates that no one called him to play a role for a year and a half after winning an Oscar.
All interesting comments, but the randomness in which they are delivered allows no theme to develop or drama to build to a climax. The last interview could have swapped places with the first.
It is edifying, though, to witness so many dynamic personalities -- ranging from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons to rock guitarist Slash and rap impresario Sean "Diddy" Combs -- speak of the continuing challenges of being black in America, of living through what Powell calls "the second Civil War." Which makes "Black List" an invaluable document for the time capsule.
THE BLACK LIST
A Freeemind Ventures Prod.
Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Writer: Elvis Mitchell
Producers: Elvis Mitchell, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Michael Slap Sloane
Executive producers: Christopher McKee, Scott Richman, Payne Brown, Tommy Walker
Director of photography: Graham Willoughby
Music: Neal Evans
Interviewer: Elvis Mitchell
Editor: Lukas Hauser
Running time -- 87 minutes
No MPAA rating
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