DECIDER – June 7, 2019 – “Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Black Godfather’ On Netflix, A Biography Of Clarence Avant, A Behind-The-Scenes Powerhouse In Black Culture”
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 BLACK GODFATHER: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
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, , , Fast Company’s Co.Create and elsewhere.