‘Black Godfather’ director Reginald Hudlin on Clarence Avant: ‘His effect is literally immeasurable’
By: Sonaiya Kelly | Los Angeles Times
Media executive Clarence Avant attends the world premiere of “The Black Godfather,” a documentary about his life, at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles on June 3, 2019. (Mark Von Holden / Invision / Associated Press)
With the passing of media executive Clarence Avant on Monday, Hollywood lost an industry magnate whose impact and reach was unquantifiable.
Avant rose to prominence in post-Prohibition New York City, where he met talent manager Joseph G. Glaser, who taught him the ins and outs of the music business. He would go on to be known as the godfather of the industry, shaping the careers of nascent icons like Bill Withers and Hank Aaron and countless others.
“The joy of his legacy eases the sorrow of our loss,” his family said in a statement announcing his passing.
Avant was a man of principles at a time when Hollywood sought to exploit and discard Black talent. He rose from humble pastoral beginnings to become a man about town in an industry where Black people weren’t afforded such prominent positions.
He was foul-mouthed and brusque, a demeanor that was incongruous with his role in Hollywood as a staunch advocate for Black artists, maintaining throughout his decades-long career a reputation for integrity and fairness in an industry infamous for its lack of both.
“He had an innate sense of goodness and fairness and was able to have the drive and willpower to succeed without compromising his values, and use that success to help more people,” said filmmaker Reginald Hudlin, who profiled Avant in the 2019 Netflix documentary “The Black Godfather.”
The source list for the documentary is itself a testament to Avant’s reach and impact and includes two former presidents (Barack Obama and Bill Clinton), Vice President Kamala Harris, and music and entertainment icons including Withers, Aaron, Quincy Jones, Jim Brown, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Clive Davis, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Jamie Foxx, David Geffen, Berry Gordy, Jesse Jackson, Benny Medina, Ludacris, L.A. Reid, Lionel Richie, Al Sharpton, Cicely Tyson, Snoop Dogg and others.
Hudlin first met Avant at the airport when he first came to Hollywood to broker his first movie deal. “His reputation so preceded him,” said Hudlin. “I mean, he was like Zeus. There’s powerful people, then there’s the gods of Mt. Olympus and then there’s the god of the gods. And that’s who Clarence was.”
Here, Hudlin discusses Avant’s influence, legacy and impact on music history:
From left, Quincy Jones, Jacqueline Avant and Clarence Avant attend a Netflix reception for the documentary “13th” on Jan. 15, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Eric Charbonneau/Invision/Associated Press)
Where did the idea to make the documentary come from? What moment or experience inspired that?
All of us who had been mentored and inspired by Clarence had been trying to convince him to write a book for years. And he would gruffly rebuff such suggestions. His daughter Nicole had decided [from] when she was 8 years old that one day she would make a movie about her father’s life, so she convinced her dad to do a documentary. And then she asked him, “Well, who do you want to make the movie?” Clarence thought for a second and said, “I like Reggie. Call him.” And when I got the call, it was one of the all-time great honors. It was a papal order. So it was an incredible honor and [I was] very happy to do it.
Can you describe the process of gathering sources for the documentary?
Well, Clarence knows everyone. Nicole had a long list of people who she knew we needed to talk to and it was a spectacular list, and we were happy to start that process. And pretty much at the end of every interview, the subject would say, “Hey, have you talked to …?” And then they would name three people. Those three people would not be on any previous list and none of them had any relationship to each other, nor was there any obvious connection to Clarence. But they would insist, “Oh, you need to call them.” And we would do so and that would just repeat over and over again. And you realize that the network of friends, the network of relationships of Clarence Avant is so vast and so eclectic. It’s impossible to fully know the depth of the man other than he’s brilliant, he’s honorable, he’s all these truly wonderful things.
Would you say it was easy to get people to talk?
Everyone was grateful for an opportunity to testify on behalf of Clarence. I mean people who regularly turn down interviews [were like] “Oh, it’s Clarence, well that’s different.”
When’s the last time you spoke to him?
A couple of weeks ago. He had been staying with his daughter Nicole and her husband Ted [Sarandos]. And I called and said, “Boy, I would love to see Clarence.” We arranged a time and we all got together and it was lovely. It was great to see him again. It’s a family environment, laughing and talking politics and culture and everything and it was just great. I really am so grateful that I had that one last visit. I would be destroyed right now if I didn’t have that last memory.
What about his personality and business sense made him stand out in Hollywood in the entertainment industry?
I think what made him truly unique in the industry is this combination of bluntness, honesty and integrity. He was a person for whom his word was his bond. He said what he thought, he said it in a way that there was no ambiguity about what he thought. And his innate sense of fairness is what made his dealmaking possible. He wasn’t trying to get over on people, he was like, “Here’s an outcome that is fair for all parties.” And he was respected and sought out because of that unique combination of qualities.
The entertainment industry is notorious for lacking those traits: integrity, fairness, honor. So how was someone like Clarence, who was by all accounts an outsider, able to thrive by exhibiting those qualities?
Because he was that and he wouldn’t fold in that regard, it made him valuable because you could trust he’s going to be honest and he’s going to be fair. And you would think, “Why don’t more people function that way?” That’s a whole other sociological question.
And there were these other amazing qualities: the fact that he had unique taste. So many of his greatest successes were acts that people didn’t understand. Bill Withers got passed on by every record label. And he said, “No, no, no, I understand this. I relate to this. I get this.” And he was not scared to stand behind something that he believed in. And Bill Withers turned out to be the great artist that he saw and others didn’t.
Clarence’s demeanor is incongruous with the role he played in Hollywood. He’s foul-mouthed and gruff but was actually pure-intentioned and looking out for everybody that he encountered. Do you think his demeanor was meant as a form of protection?
Well, yes, I think it was a protective shield. I think he was a bit of a porcupine. But also he grew up in a rough-and-tumble era, he grew up as a sharecropper. He worked in these after-hours nightclubs. It’s a really tough environment. You couldn’t be a punk in those situations. But those environments never compromised his integrity as a person. And that combination was special and made him invaluable.
How would you break down his presence and influence on music history?
He understood the value of entertainment. He understood the value of stardom. He built Black institutions, he supported Black institutions. And as Black music went from something that was widely influential but never fully respected, he was a prime driver in the movement to take Black music to its proper place as the mainstream of popular entertainment on a global basis.
There was a period where, if you were a Black executive working in the music business, you were there because Clarence Avant placed you there. And the number of artists, managers, executives, people in every aspect of the business, of every race, of every gender, who went to Clarence for advice, he was a guiding light … he was a lighthouse for so many people.
When we were making the movie, we were trying to calculate OK, if you think about all the fortunes he helped make, can we actually put a dollar number to the ripple effect of what Clarence did? And we quickly gave up. There was just no way. If you look at sports, entertainment, politics, all these different worlds he affected, his effect is literally immeasurable.
Do you think another figure like Clarence could exist in the entertainment industry today?
[Laughs] First of all, it’s really unfair to relegate Clarence to entertainment. His impact on politics was huge. There were so many areas that he touched, but I don’t know that they make men like Clarence Avant anymore. History doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. So there’s a lot of people who were touched by Clarence who aspire to live to the values that he espoused. So in that sense, he has many, many children beyond his son and his daughter. There’s all these men who look at him as a father figure.
And there’s a lot of people who, once they heard about him, either through reputation or through the movie, are like “Oh, that’s another way of being successful, being impactful.” You don’t have to be a celebrity, you don’t have to weasel your way into every deal. Sometimes you do the right thing because the right thing is the thing to do. There’s a lot of people who aspire to those values and that is an extraordinary legacy.
How do you think the entertainment and political landscape might look if he had never come to Hollywood?
It’s literally unimaginable. When you think about him cold-calling Andy Young, who he had never met and saying, “Are you really running for Congress in Georgia as a Black man?” “Yes, sir.” He goes, “Well if you’re crazy enough to do that, I’m crazy enough to back you.” So when you think about the importance of just that one phone call, and [Avant] putting together a huge fundraising concert for [Young] to go to Congress and then from Congress became the mayor of Atlanta and Atlanta being the financial and cultural center that it is, and then [Young] being at the U.N. on behalf of President Jimmy Carter and all the things that he’s doing today, that’s just one man that [Avant] touched. And that one man had a gigantic impact on the rest of the world. And just keep multiplying that.
Here’s Hank Aaron, who’s about to break Babe Ruth’s record. And he’s getting death threats daily. And this is old-time Atlanta; you’ve got to take these death threats seriously. And [Clarence] stepped in and said, “We’re going to make sure you’re financially comfortable for the rest of your life by using this opportunity properly.” And him being the aggressive dealmaker to get Hank Aaron the fair endorsements that he deserved. And then Hank Aaron taking all the business lessons he learned from Clarence over the years and becoming an incredibly successful businessman, and then taking that business success and giving away so many millions through his charitable organizations. We just named two people who in turn touched thousands of people. And you could just go on and on naming case study after case study of how he touched someone’s life who was transformative, and then turned around and did it themselves.
How much do you think his impact was a matter of the time period in which he was born?
Well, this is the question you ask of any great person. Do the times make the man or does the man make the time? So you just have to say Clarence was a unique product of his moment. With that being said, are there great people before him? Yes. Will there be great people after him? Yes, of course, there will always be champions that will emerge out of the unique circumstances and they will meet the moment, whatever that moment is. Because the fact is, Clarence met the moment of the era he grew up in. And there’s a person in a crib today, who will meet the moment of 20 years from now.