It’s been more than two years, nearly 50 interviews, and two separate volumes since photographer Timothy Greenfield and writer Elvis Mitchell set out to capture the stories of prominent African Americans. The project resulted in the HBO documentary series, ‘The Black List,” a series of what Greenfield has called “talking portraits” and Mitchell describes as “surprising, inspirational stories.” Volumes One and Two, which Comcast XFINITY subscribers can see here, included standout segments included Toni Morrison, Serena Williams, Colin Powell, and Al Sharpton. ‘The Black List: Volume 3‘, which debuted February 8 on HBO – and can also be seen here on Fancast XFINITY TV – features candid talks with Whoopi Goldberg, Dr. Michael Lomax and John Legend. During a break from the 7th annual Oxford Film Festival, in Mississippi, Mitchell spoke about the latest installment of this longtime passion project.
There was just a screen at the Paley Center in New York and in Los Angeles. How’d it go? Excellent. It’s so short it felt like a highlight reel to me. We had an hour for volume 2 and 90 minutes for volume 1.
Which interviews from this latest volume stand out to you? The whole section with Dr. Michael Lomax (the the president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund) talking about his incredibly complicated family history. With his father being a numbers runner and his mother being a crusading journalist. Being pulled out of LA, which was a progressive and interesting place and having to change to the Deep South during a turbulent time. He’s someone people won’t know but will come away thinking oh my God, what a life this guy’s had. And to me, that’s what this is about. It’s not just about the famous people whose lives are incredibly complicated and complex. It’s about how almost every African American has a life that goes in many directions and contains many stories in and of itself.
Having done nearly 50 interviews with people of widely varying ages, can you speak to the differences you’ve noticed in the generations? The big difference is that people who are older have a perspective on their lives that the younger folks who are creating their own history don’t have yet. John Legend was incredibly interesting about his life. Having made some early decisions that made him an outcast in some ways in his own family and led him to forge his own way. That perspective aside, I’ve tended to see more similarities than differences. The older folks kind of look back and see how the obstacles they overcame influenced them and perhaps still weigh heavily in their lives while they younger people are still going through it and drawing on the ire.
What was the story with John Legend? He talks about how he grew up in the church and how gospel was very important to him but he made a decision that he was going to take a different look at organized religion. And that was not going to be the way he lived his life. And that led to a kind of schism. But he still understands that having the Bible at his house, in his head and in his heart is not something you can shake, and that becomes to a great extent part of the way he views himself as an artist. He has rejected it but not repudiated in the way he creates his music.
Among the three volumes of ‘The Black List,’ are there any that stand out for having moved you especially? I can’t think of one that didn’t move me. In a lot of these cases, you think you know these people. Then you find you don’t. I thought I knew who Al Sharpton was going to be. I thought I knew who Colin Powell was going to be. And I found there was a lot more there to both of them than I had imagined, especially with Al Sharpton, who has probably been interviewed by every English-speaking person in America. I definitely felt surprised. Colin Powell, too. You think of him as some right wing apparatchik, but then he talked about coming up in the 60s, facing racism and that the struggles are not over for him. Again, there’s so much more to people than I imagined. I came away tremendously moved. Sitting with anyone for any hour, they let their guard down and I think in a lot of cases they were surprised at some of the things they said.
What’s the message of this series, a message that transcends color? That’s one of the great things, too. When we first showed ‘The Black List’ at Sundance, it was definitely an audience geared more toward the majority than the minority. There were more white viewers in Park City than black. However they talked about the project in purely inspirational terms. Everybody in ‘The Black List’ talks about running into some enormous obstacle or obstacles that they just power through, that doesn’t even occur to them to be slowed down by it. I guess it comes down to there’s more to the human experience than anybody thinks. These films are all about triumph, conquest and not giving up on yourself. I think that’s something people of all colors can take away.