If your currency as a documentary subject lay in the number of heavyweights taking time to sing your praises on camera with twinkles in each one’s eyes, then music industry executive Clarence Avant may be, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the richest man in town.
A poor kid from Depression-era North Carolina who rose to become a behind-the-scenes titan of managing, dealmaking and problem-solving across the spectrum of black entertainment — from a previous era’s jazz and soul royalty to today’s R&B/rap empires, with sports and politics thrown in for good measure — Avant is the no-nonsense power broker at the center of Reginald Hudlin’s affectionate, illuminating biodoc named for his showbiz moniker, “The Black Godfather.” The living embodiment of that wily line from David Mamet’s mob comedy “Things Change” — “he’s the guy behind the guy … behind the guy” — the revered but limelight-shunning octogenarian comes in for a rollicking, heartfelt series of testimonials from the likes of Quincy Jones, Berry Gordy, Hank Aaron, Andrew Young, David Geffen, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, amongst dozens and dozens of others.
Whether his name is familiar to you or not, Avant’s reach and reputation, despite his aversion to being the center of attention, is the stuff of anecdotal gold, especially when the personality behind it is like that of the blunt, profane, wise uncle who suffers no fools yet radiates compassion. (Plenty of interviewees smile warmly at the honor of being colorfully chewed out by Avant.) After two hours of stories that paint an indelible portrait of cagey black entrepreneurship and honest mentoring — one grateful recipient of Avant’s personal advice named his first child after him — it’s hard not to imagine a cut of “The Black Godfather” out there that’s five hours long, and perhaps just as entertaining.
The unsaid details alone surrounding Avant’s music-rep beginnings in the ‘60s New York jazz scene under the tutelage of mob-connected Joe Glaser — legendary manager of Louis Armstrong — suggest a fascinating historical narrative on their own. Avant shepherded Jimmy Smith and Lalo Schifrin to storied careers, but when the latter’s desire to do film work took Avant to Hollywood, the sight of a black man handling a white artist was eye-opening, to say the least. In no time, mogul Lew Wasserman was a valuable friend and colleague.
Avant would come to build labels (Sussex, Tabu) that nurtured artists Bill Withers, Sixto Rodriguez, the SOS Band and Cherelle. He cultivated Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as producer/kingmakers (by first telling them they weren’t asking for enough money), established the first black-owned radio station, raised funds for causes and candidates, and advised Jones, Snoop Dogg, L.A. Reid and Babyface at crossroads moments.
But the real magic lay in Avant’s back-channel efforts to get a racially entrenched industry to see the true worth of black talent — in one instance, not just producing a prime-time special that would help transition Muhammad Ali from retiring boxing star to beloved entertainment figure, but insisting that the network hire a black director for it. When Aaron neared his record-breaking 715th homer, Avant saw an opportunity to get the reserved athlete a then-unheard-of sponsorship deal from Coca-Cola (with a brazen opening pitch line to its president that, as retold here, is a spit-take-worthy classic).
Much is humorously made by myriad interviewees of the mystery surrounding Avant’s compensation for his wheeling and dealing, if there ever was any (athlete-turned-actor Jim Brown jokes he was never entirely clear what Avant’s title was). Rather, the feeling Hudlin and producer Nicole Avant, Clarence’s daughter, want to leave you with is of a fiercely engaged protector who talked a good game about getting paid — “Life is all about numbers,” Avant says on camera frequently — but whose personal reward was obviously creating a web of friends and talent who grasped the meaning of working hard, earning their due and giving back. Avant’s skin color is one aspect of his inspiring story, for sure, but the heart inside “The Black Godfather” — and the ways an honorable soul with personal power can effect meaningful change — spins its own joyful melody.
‘The Black Godfather’
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Starts June 7, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; also available on Netflix
Reginald Hudlin’s doc is an affectionate introduction to music power-broker Clarence Avant.
By Andrew Barker
With: Clarence Avant, Quincy Jones, Barack Obama, Sean Combs, Berry Gordy, Clive Davis, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Bill Clinton, Jamie Foxx, Bill Withers, Snoop Dogg, Lalo Schifrin, Kamala Harris, Jacqueline Avant, Nicole Avant, Alex Avant, Jerry Moss, Jon Platt, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Lucian Grainge, David Geffen, Nelson George, Hank Aaron, Jim Brown.
On first glance, Clarence Avant’s career highlights seem impressive, if somewhat modest for a man widely known as “the godfather of black music.” Starting as a manager to pianist-composer Lalo Schifrin, he went on to found two important if short-lived independent record labels, serve as a sporadic concert organizer and special events producer, fund-raise for Democratic politicians, and count himself as a mentor to a host of African American execs. But the 88-year-old’s impact on half a century of black music – and black enterprise in general – runs far, far deeper than that, and Reginald Hudlin’s affectionate Netflix bio-doc “The Black Godfather” does yeoman’s work introducing a figure that few outsiders have likely heard of, but who needs no introduction in the power corridors of the entertainment industry.
Perhaps the most obvious sign of Avant’s importance can be found in a brief look through the figures who agreed to sit for interviews here: From industry power-brokers (Berry Gordy, Clive Davis, Quincy Jones, Jerry Moss) to civil rights icons (Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson), Avant’s former signings and protégés (Bill Withers, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, L.A. Reid & Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds), and even two former presidents and one potential future one (Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Kamala Harris). Avant’s friend circle is wide, and each of these heavyweights appear to know him intimately. Yet he was more than just a well-connected mover and shaker, and Hudlin’s film is most insightful in illustrating just how much the model of the modern black entertainment mogul was made in Avant’s image.
Profane, pugnacious, and sometimes plainspokenly profound, Avant grew up in a tiny town in North Carolina, moved to New York and fell under the tutelage of mob-connected music manager Joe Glaser, and eventually alighted to L.A., where he founded labels Sussex Records and later Tabu. But his true legacy lies in his off-the-books efforts to help other black entrepreneurs get the treatment and compensation they deserved. Whether it was advising Jam and Lewis to ask for more money, insisting that a TV network hire a black director for a Muhammad Ali tribute special, or helping save Don Cornelius’ “Soul Train” from a rival show by Dick Clark, Avant was well ahead of his time in recognizing the importance of black entertainers and athletes having an ownership stake in the businesses to which they contribute so disproportionately.
Hudlin, a longtime film and TV director here making his first documentary, does well to provide the necessary historical contexts around Avant’s biggest career moves, with the likes of Cicely Tyson explaining just how unusual it was to see a black man, much less one as colorful and country as Clarence, throwing his weight around in white-dominated industries. “The Black Godfather” is, however, produced by its subject’s daughter, Nicole Avant, and along with the access that provides comes an element of insider clubbiness that isn’t always helpful. Too often, you have to use your imagination to figure out exactly what it was Avant did, specifically, that allowed him to pull off so many impressive deals and to leave such an oversized footprint. (NFL great Jim Brown, who credits Avant with convincing him to launch an acting career, likely speaks for many in the audience when he says, “I kept hearing about this guy Clarence Avant, but no one seemed to know what his actual official title was.”)
Sometimes this is understandable – when Sean Combs mentions of Avant, “he kept my ass out of jail one or two times,” you hardly expect him to elaborate on the particulars – but it’s when Hudlin does manage to ferret out the details that a deeper understanding of Avant starts to emerge.
Hank Aaron, for example, recalls how Avant took it upon himself to secure him sponsorship deals as he inched toward Babe Ruth’s home run record – Avant’s bull in a china shop tactics to pitch Aaron for an endorsement with Coca-Cola are hilariously audacious. A more emotional side of Avant is revealed by music publishing mogul Jon Platt, who was on the verge of getting a divorce when he called up Avant expecting some “guy talk” consolation, and instead got an earful from the irate godfather. (Platt ended up patching up his marriage, and naming one of his sons Clarence.)
Unlike most music power-players of his stature, Avant has long been reticent to thrust himself toward center stage, and his sardonic, no-fools-suffered wit here helps cut through the sometimes excessive quantity of glowing testimonials the film stacks up in his honor. (The disdainful shrug he offers after conceding, “yeah, I had some hit records” is worth the price of admission alone.) But when David Geffen notes of Avant’s role as an all-purpose mentor, “I don’t know how he made a living – he never seems to charge people,” you wish the filmmakers would pose that question to the man himself. “Life is all about the numbers,” Avant says more than once here. So how did he make them add up for himself?
Perhaps, unlike most music power-players of his stature, he just understands the importance of keeping some things close to the vest.
Film Review: ‘The Black Godfather’
Reviewed at Paramount Studios, Los Angeles, June 3, 2019.
PRODUCTION: A Netflix presentation. Produced by Byron Phillips, Nelson George, Caitrin Rogers, Nicole Avant. Executive producers: Andrew Fried, Dane Lillegard, Ann Finnegan, Reginald Hudlin, Angus Wall, Jennifer Sofio-Hall.
CREW: Directed by Reginald Hudlin. Camera (color): Matthew Chavez. Editors: Wyatt Jones, Will Znidaric. Music: Jasha Klebe.
WITH: Clarence Avant, Quincy Jones, Barack Obama, Sean Combs, Berry Gordy, Clive Davis, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Bill Clinton, Jamie Foxx, Bill Withers, Snoop Dogg, Lalo Schifrin, Kamala Harris, Jacqueline Avant, Nicole Avant, Alex Avant, Jerry Moss, Jon Platt, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Lucian Grainge, David Geffen, Nelson George, Hank Aaron, Jim Brown.
Who is the Black Godfather? Witness the exceptional and unlikely rise of Clarence Avant, a music executive who influenced legends such as Bill Withers, Snoop Dogg, Quincy Jones, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and so many more.
The Black Godfather premieres June 7th, in select theaters and on Netflix – Watch the trailer!