Surrounded by dark wood, seated in a cushy chair, his fingers steepled and his gray hair brushed back, sits a sagacious Clarence Avant. His demeanor is calm but slightly serious, as he relays the star-studded stories that have turned him into a major Hollywood figure. He unequivocally states: “Life is about one thing: numbers. Nothing else.”
Avant’s quiet but meteoric impact on culture is the subject of the new Netflix documentary The Black Godfather, which traces his influence through the various stars, from Barack Obama to Snoop Dogg, that have been impressed by Avant’s business smarts. The film, which grapples with the idea of legacy and influence, brings into focus a stellar figure too long in the shadows.
Despite his belief that numerical value is a key determinant in life, what he has done, according to executive producer and director Reginald Hudlin, is beyond numbers. “We tried to do the math of what he’s done and the opportunities he’s generated – we couldn’t figure it out. It’s too complicated, the number would be too high,” he tells the Guardian.
Born in South Carolina, Avant grew up extremely poor in a segregated south that had little opportunities to offer black men. He later fled, after a foiled attempt to poison his abusive stepfather, and joined his aunt in New Jersey. There, he started a new life in spectacular fashion, despite only finishing the ninth grade. He got his first chance after working in a lounge in Newark, where he was approached by Joseph G Glaser, who believed he would make a good agent. Through a series of business decisions, his acumen quickly lent itself to music, sports, television, film and even politics despite being the unexpected choice, by all factors.
Al Sharpton tells of his first meeting with the magnate: “I was looking for a tall, imposing man. And in those days, everyone was bright, darn-there white, and curly haired. They used to call it ‘good hair’. And this very short, dark skinned brother came in who was very emphatic, you know, like a guy, like an uncle at a reunion.”
Though his physical stature is small, his legacy is huge with athletes such as Jim Brown and Hank Aaron, to musicians like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Bill Withers, to executives like Andre Harrell and David Geffen, to politicians like Andrew Young and Barack Obama, all crediting Avant (affectionately called the Godfather) with providing boosts in their careers.
For years, Avant was pestered into writing a book about his experiences. He continuously refused but found the possibility of making a documentary intriguing. He personally selected Hudlin, director of House Party and Marshall, for the project, following a sort of theme of his life: selecting talented black people to partake in the spoils of a glittering world. If WEB DuBois created and cultivated the Talented Tenth, Avant is the curator to Bootstrap Black Hollywood who has gone without his flowers for too long. To Hudlin, a movie about Avant is natural: “Clarence is an important figure in American history … It would be criminal not to celebrate him.”
While Avant’s name isn’t instantly synonymous with Hollywood’s household stars, to Hollywood’s elite, Avant is part of the club. In the film, Jim Brown, Hall of Fame footballer and actor, discusses Avant’s quiet takeover: “There were so many question marks at that particular time, racially, and Hollywood has its own power base and here was an African American man in Hollywood that was defying what Hollywood was supposed to be.”
Obama says: “One of the things he understands is there are different kinds of power. There’s the power that needs the spotlight but there’s also the power that comes from being behind the scenes.” He himself credits Avant with getting him to a primetime slot for the 2004 Democratic convention for a speech that ultimately increased his political profile.
A legacy like Avant’s comes with a certain magnitude, which shows in the spectrum of people who chose to speak on camera about the impact he has had on their lives. Initially, Hudlin thought it would take only a year to make, but it soon swelled due to the scores of major names that Avant mentored. In the end, the director conducted over 75 interviews over the course of three years.
“It’s just a vast array of people who he’s touched in so many different fields that we just had to keep going, if we were going to do the story justice,” says Hudlin. According to him, it was really the only huge hurdle they had to tackle during the film-making process. “So many powerful people saying amazing insights. Combing through all that material and figuring out the story was definitely a challenge. A lot of times, I would ask people about the same stories because I wanted to hear all these stories from different perspectives, mainly because some of these stories are so unbelievable you have to hear it from multiple sources to confirm that they’re true.”
To Hudlin, Avant epitomizes the eminence of great black historical figures who were crazy enough to dream and even crazier to dare. He hopes the film will inspire.
“Telling a story that’s very specific to black culture doesn’t limit its appeal in any way … The nuances and details of black culture and black life are things I know very well so I know I can tell these stories very well and very authentically,” Hudlin says. He resumes: “With black folks who are still struggling with getting the full range of representation, telling our stories with integrity is very important, both for us and for the rest of the world. Showing the full range of our humanity is very important.”
It is these cornerstones by which Avant has built his life. “Yeah, I helped a lot of people, but my job, so far as I’m concerned, is to move us forward, period,” explains the music executive, mediator, mentor and political activist in the documentary. It’s as Fresh Prince of Bel-Air creator Benny Medina says in the film: “It’s not even like he’s the bridge. He’s the way.”