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.
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.