“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.
Still, there is an implicit thesis of hope in The Black List—a hope that was all but missing during the exhaustive hours of CNN’s “Black in America.” Yes, the film focuses its lens on Nobel Prize winners, Olympic gold medalists and marble ceiling breakers. But it’s more than that.
Here, we get black folks talking about black folks without “that gaze,” as Morrison called it, that often comes when explaining blackness to whites. So a refreshingly succinct Al Sharpton can say plainly that the hip-hop generation seems to be “connected to nothing” and a few interviews later Sean Combs can accuse Sharpton’s generation of abandoning his as “a forgotten generation.”
The allowance for this range of perspective lets Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks remember her father driving the family from one army base to the next in the 1960s, wearing his uniform, rather than civilian clothes, “because if you dressed in your army uniform ‘the folks’ on the road were less likely to kill you.” And then, less than five minutes later, it lets former Secretary of State Collin Powell recall an experience driving a Volkswagen with a New York license plate and an LBJ sticker through the “deep, Deep south,” in 1964 and remembering, with notable discomfort, that it was “a chancy thing to do.”
Because this assemblage of short stories on race comes without “the gaze” of white explanation, white establishment—without any surrounding white context at all—the subjects of The Black List can actually paint some pictures worth preserving.
As Morrison explained, “Once you erase that from your canvas you can really play.”
Helena Andrews covers the nexus of pop culture and politics at Politico.com.