The latest in our series of writers unearthing hidden gems is a recommendation for an eye-opening documentary about an often unsung entertainment industry titan.
Thu 24 Sep 2020 04.01 EDT
The first time I saw The Black Godfather, the 2019 Netflix documentary on black entertainment giant Clarence Avant (and not the 1974 Blaxploitation movie of the same name), I found myself tearing up during most of it. I didn’t know if it was tears of joy, because I was enjoying the whole thing, or tears of anger, because I had never heard Avant’s whole story until now.
People who usually read the liner notes of R&B albums have probably come across Avant’s name before. In the 1970s, he founded Sussex Records (the name a merging of the two things Avant claims everybody wants – success and sex), the label that launched the career of black folk/soul legend Bill Withers, who died earlier this year. The following decade, he created the Tabu label, which dropped several hit singles thanks to in-house producers (and future Grammy winners) Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.Advertisement
But, as the film tells it, Avant has done so, so, so much more. He managed such artists as Little Willie John, Jimmy Smith and Lalo Schifrin, whom Avant brought to Hollywood when Schifrin wanted to break into film and TV composing (we all know the Mission: Impossible theme by heart, thanks to Avant.) He promoted Michael Jackson’s Bad tour. He organized concerts and fundraisers for politicians. He brokered deals for many movers and shakers in the entertainment industry. He even told Bill Clinton to stay put in the White House when he was getting impeached.
“He knows everybody,” is the line that’s echoed throughout the movie, and the director Reginald Hudlin practically rounds up all the famous, powerful and successful people Avant knows and has known: Clinton, Withers, Jam and Lewis, Quincy Jones, Barack Obama, David Geffen, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Snoop Dogg, Kamala Harris, Jamie Foxx, Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, LA Reid and Babyface, Lionel Richie, Cicely Tyson – even the Netflix co-chief Ted Sarandos pops up to salute the guy.
Avant surprisingly takes all of this in stride. Now in his senior years (he’ll turn 90 next February), he’s usually seen sitting in a chair, hands clasped, peppering his words with a flurry of four-letter expletives. He’s certainly an ornery, gravelly-voiced cuss (imagine Oscar the Grouch in the body of those old brothas you see in the barber shop). Even when he’s en route to get a well-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he grouses about how he got wrapped up in all of this nonsense.
It all started way back in the late 1950s, when Avant, then a manager for a New Jersey lounge, caught the eye of legendary jazz manager Joe Glaser, who took Avant under his wing. Even though Glaser had a rep for being “connected” he was still the closest thing Avant (who grew up in North Carolina with a deadbeat biological dad and an abusive stepdad little Clarence tried to poison) had to a father figure or role model.
Much like how Glaser helped him out, Avant would go on to help out others. He got then football star Jim Brown into the movies, eventually becoming a 70s action hero. He practically stormed into the offices of Coca-Cola and demanded an endorsement deal for Hank Aaron, who was on the verge of hitting his record-shattering, 715th home run. When Sean Combs had to get out of LA the same weekend Biggie Smalls was murdered, Avant was the one who gave him safe passage. And do you wanna guess who made the phone call to get Obama’s career-launching speech at the 2004 Democratic convention on primetime?
Mostly, Avant made sure black people were getting the right deal. A bona fide numbers man, he would encourage his fellow brothas and sistas in the biz to not settle for less. In fact, they should demand more. As Combs bluntly puts it: “Clarence makes sure that you don’t get [screwed].” He would also be there for fellow, younger moguls in the black music industry, including Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell, who also died earlier this year.
What’s moving about the film is how it presents Avant as both an unsung industry icon and an African American savior. Even though Avant says he was never active in the 60s civil-rights movement – “If I get hit,” he says, “I’d hit back” – he nonetheless did more for black people than he’d like to admit. He used his resources to aid those who wanted to make something of themselves and inspire others.
Maybe the tears that were coming out of me came from watching a man who cares a lot influencing others to do the same. At a time when it seems like the truly powerful would rather watch the world burn than lift a finger to help those in need, The Black Godfather gives us a shining look at a man you wish there were a lot more of.
- The Black Godfather is available on Netflix in the US and UK.