Reginald Hudlin has come full circle with his latest film, the Netflix documentary “The Black Godfather,” out Friday, that traces the life and times of music business titan Clarence Avant.
It wasn’t hard for the filmmaker, whose credits as a producer, director and screenwriter include “House Party,” “Django Unchained” and the 2017 Chadwick Boseman-fronted Thurgood Marshall biopic, to choose a subject for his first feature-length documentary.
Hudlin had a personal connection to the man Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris calls a ”kingmaker” since his early beginnings at Harvard University.
“One of my first jobs in Hollywood was developing a proposed movie that would have teamed up Janet Jackson with the Time,” he told the Daily News. “Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were going to do the music, so of course Clarence was involved.”
“He met me at the airport, which I knew was a big deal since all my music business friends talked about Clarence like he was Zeus,” Hudlin continued. “Anyway, the movie never got made but I earned enough money writing the script to afford a computer, which back in those days cost as much as a car.
“I wrote my first film, ‘House Party,’ on that computer, which changed my life,” he added.
Avant, now 88, has lived up to his friendly moniker of “The Black Godfather” with a career in music and entertainment that has spanned five decades.
The Climax, N.C., native grew up dirt poor in the Depression-era South but rose to become one of the most influential and powerful figures in pop music — discovering talent, running record companies, brokering deals and mentoring a generation of music executives and hit makers including Antonio “LA” Reid, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Sean “Diddy” Combs, among others.
Throughout the two-hour film — which revolves around Avant’s getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2016 — viewers get a brutally honest view of the music industry told from his point of view.
There are also a seemingly endless stream of nuggets dropped about how Avant — who, himself, minces no words about life, family and business. He’s the man who helped put an end to Dick Clark’s ill-fated attempt at competing with Don Cornelius’ black-owned “Soul Train” series.
The former Sussex Records chieftain, who also founded Tabu Records, went on to buy Los Angeles’ first African American-owned FM radio station in the early 1970s. This was after managing the careers of jazz artists Jimmy Smith, Sarah Vaughan and Freddie Hubbard.
He also brokered peace among his best friend Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Universal Pictures and CBS Records over an “E.T.” tie-in album in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Avant engineered for Combs and his camp to inconspicuously travel from Los Angeles to New York after the murder of the Notorious B.I.G.
A who’s who of boldfaced names from the world of entertainment, sports and politics appear throughout the movie, including actress Cicely Tyson, hip-hop stars Snoop Dogg and Ludacris, veteran R&B acts Cherelle and Lionel Richie, recording industry magnates Berry Gordy, Clive Davis and David Geffen, sports legends Hank Aaron and Jim Brown and civil rights activists Danny Bakewell and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Hudlin said his main discovery with putting the project together was: “If you want to get an interview with some of the most important people in the world, say it’s for Clarence Avant.”
“Mission: Impossible” composer Lalo Schifrin, Dizzy Gillespie’s former pianist, shows up in the film and is credited with teaching Avant the importance of publishing rights. Bill Withers, one of Avant’s early music acts and oldest friends, credits Avant for putting him on the map with “Lean On Me.”
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are among the glitterati sharing heartfelt testimonials, anecdotes and little known nuggets about Avant — who actually got his start in New York City working with Al Capone associates.
So even though he is considered a godfather figure to many in the black music industry, “The Black Godfather” term is truly a double entendre.
Notably, Clinton opened up about how Avant advised him to stand firm “when the Republicans were trying to run me out of town.”
Obama, on the other hand, was championed by Avant’s daughter Nicole Avant — who went onto become the U.S. ambassador for the Bahamas and the wife of Netflix chief of content Ted Sarandos Jr.
Avant, a longtime friend of the Clintons, admittedly didn’t think Obama would beat Hillary Clinton in the 2007 Democratic primary. Meanwhile his daughter, Nicole, was an early supporter of the former Illinois junior senator.
“The honesty and insightful analysis provided by both Presidents Obama and Clinton and David Geffen were breathtaking and invaluable for the film,” Hudlin shared. “They understand the man and his place in history, and were very honest about his impact on them.”
The East St. Louis-area native, 58, who recently directed episodes of Showtime’s “Black Monday” and TBS’ “The Last O.G.,” considers “The Black Godfather” required viewing for music industry enthusiasts who want to know how the business really works.
“But its appeal is much broader than that,” Hudlin said. “I think the movie is about living your life with no limitations, no matter how humble your beginnings.“
Documentary on the famed music exec premieres today on Netflix.
Director, writer and producer Reginald Hudlin first heard the name Clarence Avant when he was hired for his first post-college job: directing two music videos for Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell. “I kept hearing about this man who was a legend — the Mt. Olympus — to everyone in the music business,” Hudlin recalls.
After being tapped for a potential project with Janet Jackson that Avant was also involved in, Hudlin finally got the chance to meet Mr. Mt. Olympus in Los Angeles. “Clarence lived up to the legend: raw but also down-to-earth real,” says Hudlin. “That was the beginning of my lifelong fascination with him.”
That fascination fuels the heart and soul behind The Black Godfather, Netflix’s original documentary chronicling the 88-year-old Avant’s barrier-breaking life and music industry career. Released Friday (June 7), the documentary is available globally on Netflix as well as in limited theatrical release in Los Angeles and New York.
Hudlin, an Academy Award nominee whose directing credits include House Party, Boomerang and Marshall, wrote and directed The Black Godfather. Nicole Avant, Avant’s daughter, served as a producer. Prior to the documentary’s June 3 world premiere in Los Angeles, Hudlin sat down for a phone interview to chat about helming the three-year project.
“You want to get your flowers when you can smell them,” says Hudlin. “I’m grateful to be able to express my gratitude for what Clarence has done for the creative and black communities. Here’s a man who’s given so much. This is really the least of what he deserves.”
Among Hudlin’s other behind-the-scenes tidbits:
Getting the project off the ground: “Over the years, everybody begged Clarence to write a book and tell his story. He completely dismissed the idea. Then Nicole finally convinced him that maybe doing a documentary was the way to go. We figured we’d interview 30 people and get done in a year. After 75 interviews, it’s now year three. We flew all over the country because his life is so big and so incredible. He touched so many people. We had a hard time keeping the documentary to two hours but we packed it all in.”
Learning about the man behind the legend: “One impressive thing about Clarence is his ability to constantly evolve. Here’s a guy with a ninth-grade education from North Carolina who ends up in the Lincoln bedroom of the White House. The fact that he made it out at all [from North Carolina] is miraculous. You just go, ‘How did he do that?’ Clarence had an intellectual charm and drive. And as he kept getting in bigger and more amazing situations, he rose to the occasion. At the same time, he kept his core values. It’s about remaining true to who you are but continuing to evolve as a person.
“Another thing: There’s an old saying that if you want to get things done, don’t worry about money or credit. That’s Clarence. He runs from the headlines; for him it’s not about self-promotion or what about mine. Clarence just wants the right thing to happen. So many people are cynical about show business. But he’s a living example of being good and doing well at the same time.”
Pharrell’s special contribution: “There’s music related to Clarence’s career in the film. But there’s also an amazing new song called “Letter to My Godfather,” written by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. When Pharrell first saw the film, he flipped out and overnight wrote this tribute song to Clarence.”
Black Godfather’s key takeaways: “I don’t care who you are. If you have will power and drive, you can make a way for yourself. That’s what people can take away from Clarence. It’s the kind of movie whereby a Harvard professor will see it and say, ‘Wow, this is an amazing documentation of a whole period of black history never seen before.’ Folks in the barbershops will see it and discuss/debate over what they’ve seen for hours. If you can go from the Ivy League to the barbershops, you’ve accomplished your goal.”
Avant’s own reaction: “Clarence told me that he dropped a tear.”
Clarence Avant may be the most influential person you’ve never heard of. Without him, Janet Jackson would still be thought of as Michael’s little sister, Bill Clinton may have never been president, Bill Withers would have kept installing toilets on airplanes instead of recording “Lean On Me,” Diddy might have gone the way of Biggie Smalls, and so much more. Reginald Hudlin takes a look at Avant’s extraordinary life, and the solar system of people he’s influenced during his life, in the new documentary The Black Godfather. Read on for more…
The Gist: If there is a piece of pop culture, especially one created by a Black artist, that you’ve enjoyed over the past 50 or so years, chances are Clarence Avant had a big role in bringing it to life. Avant isn’t a singer or songwriter, or even a producer: He was a manager, agent, music executive, and — most importantly — a deal maker who never let anything, even institutional racism, stand in his way of getting what he wanted.
Reginald Hudlin, whose producing and directing career includes titles ranging from House Party to Django Unchained, directs this biographical documentary of the 88-year-old Avant, starting with when his career in entertainment essentially started, in 1958. That’s when Avant, who ran a music club in Newark, went to work for Joe Glaser, then one of the biggest managers and agents in the business, with big names like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. With the powerful, “connected” Glaser behind him, the blunt Avant had no problem opening doors on the east coast and eventually in Los Angeles, despite the fact that there weren’t a lot of Black agents, managers or executives at the time.
But Avant’s solar system of influence (a stunning graphical theme Hudlin uses throughout the film) only started. From there, he connected with Quincy Jones, who became one of his closest and oldest friends. Aavant has managed to influence careers that range from Don Cornelius to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to Snoop Dogg to Bill Withers to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. And that’s scratching the surface; he helped Muhammad Ali become a pop culture phenomenon in the 1970s, made sure Sean “Diddy” Combs wasn’t the next person get popped after Biggie Smalls was killed, worked with Jesse Jackson to organize the seminal 1972 Save The Children concert, made an aircraft mechanic named Bill Withers a superstar via his Sussex label (Avant chose the name because it was a cross between “Sex” and “Success”), ensured Hank Aaron got an endorsement deal with Coca-Cola before he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, and made sure Michael Jackson’s narration could appear on MCA’s E.T. album, despite Jackson’s contract with Epic Records.
Hudlin manages to talk to just about all of the people mentioned above, at least the one who are still with us, along with people like Jamie Foxx, Cicely Tyson, Lionel Richie, A&M co-founder Jerry Moss, David Geffen, Ludacris, Clive Davis and many more. Avant and his family also participate heavily in the film.
In every situation where he influenced someone’s decision process or introduced them to the right people, his idea was to give artists, producers, athletes, politicians and anyone else who came to him for advice the information they needed to be treated fairly by a business that likes to screw people in general and people of color even more.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?:The Black Godfather is a pretty straightforward biographical documentary, but there’s literally no one that has had the life and influence on American culture that Clarence Avant has had.
Performance Worth Watching: Clarence Avant is just fascinating to watch. At 88, he is still pretty on the ball, and pretty damn ornery, peppering his answers with f-bombs and mf-bombs, especially when he’s riding to the ceremony for his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: “Sometimes, Reggie, I say to myself, ‘How the fuck did I get involved in all this shit?’” Despite knowing just about everybody, Avant is still a pretty humble guy.
Memorable Dialogue: “I don’t have problems. I have friends,” Avant says after he tells the story of how the loan Glaser gave him to buy a house in Beverly Hills was forgiven after Glaser’s death. Also: “Life is about one thing: numbers, nothing else. Life begins with a number and ends with a number. Love ain’t got nothing to do with shit. It’s all about numbers, nothing else.”
Our Take: It almost feel like the 118-minute run time of The Black Godfather isn’t enough to cover the life and career of Clarence Avant, but Hudlin does his best to cover everything, from his childhood growing up poor in Climax, NC, to his move to an aunt’s house in Summit, NJ, to how his career started. But no matter who Hudlin talks to in the movie, the most compelling people are Avant, his wife Jackie and his children, Nicole and Alex. Considering how powerful Avant is and was, he and his family seem extraordinarily grounded.
Nicole, who was the U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas under Obama, gives this example: wanted to campaign for the young senator when he ran against family friend Hillary Clinton, Avant simply told her, “You’re an adult, you can do what you want.” Not many people can be that secure in themselves and their friendships in order to say this.
The access Hudlin got, likely via heavy influence from Avant, was remarkable; how many documentaries have interviews with two former Presidents, Oscar winners like Tyson and Foxx, Quincy Jones, LA Reid and Babyface, and even more? There were a few places where we needed less exposition — we all pretty much know who Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth are — and more stories and details. But, for the most part, the film encapsulates an extraordinary man who continues to live a remarkable life exactly the way he wants to live it.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Black Godfather is a fine profile of the most influential man you likely have never heard of. That’s the hallmark of an excellent biographical documentary.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon,VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company’s Co.Create and elsewhere.
Producer Pharrell Williams has contributed to the soundtrack of the movie. Pharrell has dropped “Letter to My Godfather,” a track that will appear on the soundtrack. The song, which features Pharrell crooning with autotune, has production from the Neptunes — meaning P hooked up with partner Chad Hugo again.