Where did the idea for 'The Black List' come from?
About couple years ago, Elvis and I discussed doing something on the African-American experience. It was an idea that I'd been toying with. And we sat down to lunch at a Thai restaurant in the East Village. By the end of our meal, we had a hundred and seventy-five names on napkins and an idea for a book, a movie, and a traveling show. Here we are now, two and a half years later, and it's all happening. So I think it was something that was meant to be.
I thought it would be great to use this as the opportunity to reclaim "the black list" and make it a positive thing and rescue it, because so much of black culture has been about reclamation and putting a good spin on what is bad anyway. I thought that as a black audience member, I would like to see something that reflected an experience that's not normally exhibited in documentaries, or is so much about black people as victims in this country, and black people not taking control of their own lives and their own destinies.
I thought it would be great to use this as the opportunity to reclaim 'the black list' and make it a positive thing and rescue it, because so much of black culture has been about reclamation and putting a good spin on what is bad anyway.
What were your expectations? How did you approach the conversations?
For me, it was a chance to get the subjects to reveal themselves in ways that they don't, normally. On the rare occasion that these people do give interviews, there's usually something they have to push or represent. In this case, they didn't have to do that. And I think they found that enormously liberating. It became a chance to talk to them and get them to express pleasure in achievement, which is such a rarity, given that one of the big philosophies of The Black List was to make it as expansive as possible.
It really is a film about the African-American experience in the twenty-first century, and that's not something that can be easily reduced. And this was a great way to use the film to fire a shot across the bow and say the black experience is much more than you think it is. And because of that there's a real sense of fun and excitement and exploration in it.
What was your approach to the filmmaking process?
It was a way to combine my unique portraiture that I've created over the years with Elvis's extraordinary ability to let the people be themselves.
From the very beginning, The Black List was going to be collaboration between Elvis and me. It was a way to combine my unique portraiture that I've created over the years with Elvis's extraordinary ability to let the people be themselves. We chose to keep it very simple, not to have Elvis be seen, but to have it in the voice of the person so that the subject is talking directly to the audience.
I think probably the comfort level that you see in the subjects on camera comes from the fact that most of them were shot in Timothy's studio, which is this beautiful place - a restored rectory in the East Village - that's a reflection of who Timothy is as an artist and as a person. There's beautiful artwork everywhere, and a sense of warmth. It piques the curiosity of people who come in, because they want to know who this guy is whose place they've come to for this portrait shooting. We shot the portraits and the interviews in the same sitting, so that did a lot of the work for us.
This film is not a sentimentalized version of success. It's not the standard thing. It catches people off-guard. From the first interview, I think what the film says is that the African-American experience is much bigger and broader and much deeper and much more influential, still, than people give it credit for.
2008 Documentary Films Series