Black Like Me ... and Me ... and Me

Elvis Mitchell discusses why there's no single African-American experience

Filmmakers Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (middle) and Elvis Mitchell (right) with interviewee Keenan Ivory Wayans
Filmmakers Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (middle) and Elvis Mitchell (right) with interviewee Keenan Ivory Wayans

The Black List is a documentary collaboration between filmmaker and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (Lou Reed: Rock & Roll Heart) and journalist, radio host, and former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell. Unlike most documentaries, the film functions, in the best sense, like a coffeetable book that offers living, breathing, ongoing portraits of 21 prominent African-American professionals who represent a wide variety of backgrounds, beliefs, and attitudes. Using interview clips that have been edited down to just a few minutes per speaker, director Greenfield-Sanders and interviewer Mitchell craft a work that reveals the inherent folly of searching for "a monolithic African-American experience," as interviewee Vernon Jordan puts it.

Interviewed are figures from the arts such as Toni Morrison, Bill T. Jones, Lou Gossett Jr., Suzan-Lori Parks, Slash, and Chris Rock; political players Colin Powell, Faye Wattleton, and Al Sharpton; athletes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dawn Staley; CEO Richard Parsons; and many more. "The thing I really wanted to get across," explains Mitchell, "is that every one of these people had a story. And anybody who gets to be successful learns how to tell his or her story pretty well."

Mitchell explains how his desire to place the focus on the stories also affected his decision to remain an off-camera interviewer. "Timothy kept saying: 'You should be in it. We should be shooting you.' I said, 'No, I should never ever be in it.' I just felt these weren't my stories. I didn't want that thing common to so many documentaries, where there's a cut to the interviewer sitting and nodding sagely, asking a question that draws attention to the question. I thought the best way for this to work was to not see me and not hear me. It makes the film a different kind of experience from the outset."

Opening the film with a segment featuring Slash, the Guns n' Roses guitarist whom many people do not realize is African-American, is another good example of how The Black List sets itself apart. "I was insistent on starting this movie with Slash," says Mitchell, "because we tend to forget that, for all intents and purposes, black people invented rock & roll. People don't usually think of Slash as being black. It shows how different the black experience is. I wanted to start in a way that threw people off guard."

Rather than achieving unity, The Black List makes the variety of experience its essence and helps strip some of the pejorative meaning from the word "blacklist," a phrase Mitchell admits has disturbed him his whole life. Bill T. Jones discusses how he identifies as a dancer and artist before he identifies as a black man. Chris Rock, in a typically well-aimed barb, says that African-Americans won't achieve parity in this country until they have the "freedom to suck equally" with white people. The inclusion of Colin Powell, who relates one of the film's most moving stories, "gives a sense of the breadth of the African-American experience," says Mitchell. "Not everybody has the same politics." All this is pretty fascinating stuff and trenchant as can be during this historic moment when the Democratic primaries are inciting a closer examination of identity politics in this country. The Black List, which will also air later this year on HBO, promises an investigation that has barely scratched the surface.  

The Black List

Documentary Feature, Special Screenings, Regional Premiere

Saturday, March 8, 5:30pm, Alamo Ritz

Monday, March 10, 5:30pm, Alamo Ritz

Friday, March 14, 5:30pm, Alamo Ritz

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