Black List: Making of a Relevant Documentary

In a new kind of talking, evolving coffee table book, prominent African Americans of various professions, disciplines and backgrounds address the camera directly as they offer their own stories and insights on the struggles, triumphs and joys of black life in this country and manage to re-define blacklist for a new century in the process.

The film was directed by the portrait photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, from a series of interviews conducted by film critic Elvis Mitchell. By design, Mitchell is never seen on camera or heard, a strategy that allows the subjects' own voices to remain the focus. The actual title of the film itself, THE BLACK LIST, was conceived by Mitchell as an answer to the persistent taint that Western culture has applied to the word black.

Those interviewed come from a vast and diverse collection of disciplines that draws from the worlds of the arts, sports, politics, business and government, including such luminaries as Toni Morrison, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Vernon Jordan, Chris Rock, Richard D. Parsons, Zane and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

As presented in THE BLACK LIST, these portraits begin in the realm of the personal and then move into areas of larger social scope, so that the impact of each individual's accomplishments on this country and on our world can be brought definitively into perspective.

THE BLACK LIST is more than an enumeration of obstacles overcomeit's a singular view of America rarely seen on screen that could very well provide a model for future generations. Accordingly, while this particular incarnation of the project concludes with a portrait of Bill T. Jones, its creators and producers foresee a List that does not end.

The Idea

The spark of an idea that became THE BLACK LIST was ignited in New York at a May, 2005 lunch date between Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell at which, per Greenfield-Sanders, “we practically shouted out one great idea after another for the project. We put a preliminary list together on a napkin. Over 100 possible subjects came to mind almost instantly. We just couldn't believe that no one had done it before.”

Adds Mitchell, “Timothy suggested that we do a book together on black culture, inspired by the coffee table photos books on African American church goers and the like, and we both knew that something was missing from the field. I wanted to call the project THE BLACK LIST because 'black' as a derogatory term always disturbed me. It was his idea that we do the portraits as interviews, and things proceeded from there.”


“Elvis was the ideal partner,” says Greenfield-Sanders. He's a man of strong convictions and opinions. I'd witnessed his talents first-hand, having been a guest on his radio show. And, Elvis was my neighbor on East 2nd Street. He literally lives down the block.”

Figuring out who to pursue for interviews quickly became a process of comparing respective databases and coming up with some names of friends who would likely sit for the partners–as a favor. Greenfield-Sanders approached old friends Thelma Golden and Toni Morrison. “Elvis thought they would be great to get the project moving ahead,” he offers.

Essential Contacts

“Timothy's contacts were essential,” adds Mitchell. “Without his groundwork we wouldn't have Bill T. Jones, Dick Parsons, Faye Wattleton, or Lorna Simpson. It was the trust that these people had in him as an artist that was responsible for the launch of the project. He gave each of them a specific sense of what we were trying to do, and each of them came into the shoots with their curiosity piqued because, I imagine, they had never been approached for something like this.”

Greenfield-Sanders recalls that, “Some subjects just needed a simple phone call. Others required weeks of back and forth cajoling. We had help, working with Mary Bradley, who books Elvis's radio show, and my friend Chad Thompson, who helped out in a few instances. Elvis knew Chris Rock and his participation was a huge boost for us. Friends of friends helped. It really began as an organic process.

Critical Mass of Boldface Names

“The project really took on amazing momentum,” said Greenfield-Sanders, “when I brought in a forward thinking team of producers who helped us envision THE BLACK LIST as a fully-realized multi-media production, the content of which could ultimately serve its audience through all kinds of distribution channels–digital, mobile, live events, galleries, retail and so forth. The team, know as Freemind Ventures, brought a strong rolodex of contacts, energy and entrepreneurial skills to the fore–and I think our ability to talk about the project in this limitless way helped our cause as well. Once we had this critical mass of boldface names and Freemind's vision, the project started to seem, for lack of a better word, 'important.'”

Whoopi Goldberg

That didn't, however, mean that the team was ultimately able to land every interview they'd wanted. Recalls Greenfield-Sanders, “Whoopi Goldberg's agent told me: “It sounds like a great project and perfect for Whoopi, but at this point she is so busy with her morning radio show and The View that I couldn't schedule God for an interview.” I loved that line.”

Once booked, the team photographed and interviewed the subjects in Greenfield-Sanders New York studio as well as in rented studios in Los Angeles, a hotel conference room in D.C., and in a movie theater lobby outside of Philadelphia.

Studio as Home

“I always prefer to shoot in my studio,” says Greenfield-Sanders, “because it's also my house, and people–especially public figures who give a lot of interviews and sit for a lot of portraits–seem to really enjoy the experience. It separates us from being just another shoot in another studio.”

“Timothy's studio and home — a converted rectory of the German Roman Catholic Church of St. Nicolas–was a conversation starter in almost every case,” Mitchell offers. “It's such an extraordinary place, like being in Bruce Wayne's mansion, only without a scabrous, witty British servant.”

Interview as Conversation

Mitchell prepared for the interviews by, as he puts it, “trying to have a language in common with the subjects, but also by doing as much research as I can possibly fit in, and to treat each interview as a conversation rather than a formal, rigid question and answer session.”

Greenfield-Sanders visualized the portraits the way he would any series: “Only I really wanted them to feel like living portraits. I designed them to visually mimic my still portrait style…simple, direct, unadorned, and honest, and I wanted those feeling to come through here. All the decisions were carefully considered: the look, the lighting, the texture, the timing. The decision to ask the subject to look directly into the camera and not over someone's shoulder was a very conscious one.”

Positioning Colin Powell

When shooting the portraits, Greenfield-Sanders was “keenly aware of varying the poses so that they would feel different from each other. For any one subject I can usually tell what kind of pose will work and what kind won't, although I continue to be surprised. When I asked Colin Powell to pose with his hands in his pockets, like a GQ model, he refused. 'Not right for me,' he said. 'It's too casual.' OK!”

Road Trip

Powell was among a handful of subjects that would require a road trip.
“We traveled to D.C. for Colin Powell,” recalls Mitchell. “He gave us very little time, but the enormity of his presence almost silenced the tick of the clock implicit in every breath he took. But he answered all of the questions with thoughtful aplomb — looking back, I have the feeling he's probably always ready for anything.”

“Our Los Angeles trip for Keenen Ivory Wayans was odd because he got to the shooting location, stepped out of his car, took a phone call and got back in and was driven off without crossing the threshold of the studio. He had been summoned away to help a friend, whose Malibu house was threatened by a wildfire.

“It was SO frustrating to have him inches from the door and then turn around and leave,” adds Greenfield-Sanders, ultimately thankful that the interview took place two days later.

Once the interviews were completed, the collaborators worked to edit the material together in a way that would keep the project “very fluid,” says Greenfield-Sanders, a goal that was in some ways challenging, “because you never hear Elvis asking the questions and because we didn't want the artificiality of the subject repeating the questions,” he says. “As the director I sometimes had to interrupt the interview and ask the subject to clarify certain names or locations, but overall it worked.”

Good Editing

“There probably isn't an interview, or piece of writing, that isn't edited,” offers Mitchell. “What good editing does is sharpen and refine, and compress, without altering intent. As much I'd like to have included every single comment our subjects made, I don't think audiences have the patience they used to bring to things such as BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ or, for that matter, the first season of “Lost.”

The comment is vintage Elvis–a spot-on assessment of the culture from one of its most celebrated critics whose work on this project and its debut at the very public forum of the Sundance Film Festival will put him on the other side of the pen.

Need to See My People On Screen

“The reason I wanted to do this project came from a heartfelt need for me to see my people on screen in a way that conferred respect on them, and on the audience,” he says. “Yes, I understood going in that I'd be reviewed for this, but I was criticized by others when I was writing at the Times, so the experience won't be entirely new to me, just as the concept of writing about a colleague's work won't be entirely new to serious critics working today.

Sense of Discovery

“What I've always loved about Sundance,” concludes Mitchell, “is the prospect of discovery. Festivals are a place to see something new, without being assaulted by information that gives the game away entirely. I'm hoping that audiences will let themselves be surprised by THE BLACK LIST.”

Project's Future

As for how the format of THE BLACK LIST might inform future incarnations of the project, Greenfield-Sanders offers that Information today moves so fast. People digest it quickly and in small portions. We created THE BLACK LIST to take advantage of this reality. It's a very modern film really, even post modern, if you will. The plan was always to continue to interview and photograph more and more subjects, adding to The List. The name of our website, “, should give you idea of our long-term ambitions.”