The Beautiful 'Black List'

A stark and simple take on the black experience, serving up picture-perfect images that speak.

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Getty Images for CineVegas

HBO's newest documentary The Black List is a lot like the imagined coffee table book that inspired it—super-sized with lots of pictures meant to incite conversation.

The film's images rotate like a Who's Who in Black America. Did you know that Slash from Guns N' Roses was black? Or that the former president of Planned Parenthood was black? Or that as a child Richard Parsons burned his family's house to the ground? Or that James Brown was Al Sharpton's personal hero?

Directed by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and based on interviews conducted by former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, The Black List manages to go beyond water-cooler chatter by doing what a perfect picture does—showing without telling.

The documentary is made up of a series of stark, simple monologues. The ultra-focused, repetitive treatment allows for tiny surprises: the widening of Toni Morrison's eyes when speaking about her Nobel Prize, the dramatic up-tick of Chris Rock's upper lip, the highest buttons of Louis Gossett Jr.'s shirt that look like they've never been fastened.

For nearly an hour and 20 minutes, Mitchell and Greenfield-Sanders allow their subjects to just talk it on out. The it being more than the definition of blackness but the very experience of it.

Rock's summation of racial progress is far more stark and characteristically hilarious than the 40-year-old dream some believe has come to fruition with Sen. Barack Obama's presidential nomination.

"The true, true equality is the equality to suck like the white man," he says, his eyes and lips dancing in that laughing but not laughing way of his. "That's really Martin Luther King's dream coming true."

Two interviews later, former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons echoes Rock. "We know we've made real progress when you just get to be a person."

Dancer Bill T. Jones talks about buying into that idealism for himself, relating an incident that he told a crowd several years ago: "I feel that I'm an artist first and then I'm black." Afterward, for some people, his name became "anathema" he says, his entire lean, muscled body conveying emotion, because, to them, he "denied his blackness."

"I thought that that's what a modernist artist was supposed to do," says Jones, "break out of categories. Well, I got a lesson that day." Later Jones talks, eyes closed, about transcendence, with a sigh that seems to come from his gut, perhaps hopefully, perhaps in defeat.