‘The Black Godfather’: Film Review

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According to The Black Godfather, it’s quite likely that music lovers would never have heard Bill Withers if not for a risk-taker named Clarence Avant. That alone would be reason for gratitude, but Reginald Hudlin’s documentary goes much further, with a string of interviewees from Lalo Schifrin to Barack Obama describing Avant (pronounced ‘AYvant’) as a crucial dealmaker; many claim to owe him their careers. Produced by the subject’s adoring daughter Nicole Avant, this is a predictably uncritical portrait, one whose constant stream of praise would be tiresome if these stories weren’t so unfamiliar to most viewers. The film’s strong theme of racial uplift will help it connect with viewers as it premieres on Netflix concurrently with a two-screen theatrical engagement.

Raised in poverty in North Carolina, Clarence Avant says he went north to New Jersey after trying (unsuccessfully) to kill his abusive stepfather. He hooked up with Joe Glaser, a music-biz manager with an exceptional client list (Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday) to go along with the underworld connections all nightclub professionals needed at the time. Avant became Glaser’s protege, and soon was booking famed jazz organist Jimmy Smith, among many others. But his world expanded when Schifrin, then a pianist for Dizzy Gillespie, wanted to establish himself as a film composer. Avant found he was comfortable walking into the offices of powerful white men — first the heads of Hollywood studios, later the presidents of record labels — and telling them what they needed. Working with Schifrin, soon the author of the “Mission: Impossible” theme, also taught Avant the importance of publishing rights: “A copyright is a gold mine.”

From the start, the film observes Avant discussing money in ways many viewers will find off-putting. “It’s all about numbers” is a frequent refrain, as he claims sentiment means nothing compared to the bottom line; when courting his wife-to-be Jacqueline (then a fashion model for Ebony), he bragged to her about the size of the check he wrote to the IRS. Hudlin will eventually suggest that’s all a deflection, hiding the deeper motives of a man who has produced high-profile charity events and conducted countless high-level negotiations for free. (“I don’t know how he made a living,” says David Geffen, since “he never seemed to charge anybody.”)

But Avant’s mercenary language had at least one positive effect: He got a generation or two of black artists to insist on the kinds of deals white peers got, and his gruffness about money convinced white executives to agree. Superstar producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis remember that when Avant (then running his second record label) met to discuss giving them a breakthrough production job, he asked their manager to leave the room and informed the pair she hadn’t asked him for enough money.

Listing the politicians, athletes, musicians and execs who appear here would be tedious, but it’s an impressive group. “Clarence knows everybody” gets said in a dozen or more ways, and while the film doesn’t offer a satisfying picture of how he befriended all those people, it does cement his reputation as a connector and, when needed, a mediator between aggrieved parties. Convincing testimony as to his impact comes from Nelson George and Obama, who praises Avant’s understanding of the way black Americans’ cultural, political and economic power is linked, all parts necessary for real progress. If The Black Godfather has a hard time understanding the man himself — who remains guarded even when interviewed alongside his family or his lifelong buddy Quincy Jones — it does show enough of his legacy to suggest its title is no overstatement.

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