If your currency as a documentary subject lay in the number of heavyweights taking time to sing your praises on camera with twinkles in each one’s eyes, then music industry executive Clarence Avant may be, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the richest man in town.
A poor kid from Depression-era North Carolina who rose to become a behind-the-scenes titan of managing, dealmaking and problem-solving across the spectrum of black entertainment — from a previous era’s jazz and soul royalty to today’s R&B/rap empires, with sports and politics thrown in for good measure — Avant is the no-nonsense power broker at the center of Reginald Hudlin’s affectionate, illuminating biodoc named for his showbiz moniker, “The Black Godfather.” The living embodiment of that wily line from David Mamet’s mob comedy “Things Change” — “he’s the guy behind the guy … behind the guy” — the revered but limelight-shunning octogenarian comes in for a rollicking, heartfelt series of testimonials from the likes of Quincy Jones, Berry Gordy, Hank Aaron, Andrew Young, David Geffen, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, amongst dozens and dozens of others.
Whether his name is familiar to you or not, Avant’s reach and reputation, despite his aversion to being the center of attention, is the stuff of anecdotal gold, especially when the personality behind it is like that of the blunt, profane, wise uncle who suffers no fools yet radiates compassion. (Plenty of interviewees smile warmly at the honor of being colorfully chewed out by Avant.) After two hours of stories that paint an indelible portrait of cagey black entrepreneurship and honest mentoring — one grateful recipient of Avant’s personal advice named his first child after him — it’s hard not to imagine a cut of “The Black Godfather” out there that’s five hours long, and perhaps just as entertaining.
The unsaid details alone surrounding Avant’s music-rep beginnings in the ‘60s New York jazz scene under the tutelage of mob-connected Joe Glaser — legendary manager of Louis Armstrong — suggest a fascinating historical narrative on their own. Avant shepherded Jimmy Smith and Lalo Schifrin to storied careers, but when the latter’s desire to do film work took Avant to Hollywood, the sight of a black man handling a white artist was eye-opening, to say the least. In no time, mogul Lew Wasserman was a valuable friend and colleague.
Avant would come to build labels (Sussex, Tabu) that nurtured artists Bill Withers, Sixto Rodriguez, the SOS Band and Cherelle. He cultivated Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as producer/kingmakers (by first telling them they weren’t asking for enough money), established the first black-owned radio station, raised funds for causes and candidates, and advised Jones, Snoop Dogg, L.A. Reid and Babyface at crossroads moments.
But the real magic lay in Avant’s back-channel efforts to get a racially entrenched industry to see the true worth of black talent — in one instance, not just producing a prime-time special that would help transition Muhammad Ali from retiring boxing star to beloved entertainment figure, but insisting that the network hire a black director for it. When Aaron neared his record-breaking 715th homer, Avant saw an opportunity to get the reserved athlete a then-unheard-of sponsorship deal from Coca-Cola (with a brazen opening pitch line to its president that, as retold here, is a spit-take-worthy classic).
Much is humorously made by myriad interviewees of the mystery surrounding Avant’s compensation for his wheeling and dealing, if there ever was any (athlete-turned-actor Jim Brown jokes he was never entirely clear what Avant’s title was). Rather, the feeling Hudlin and producer Nicole Avant, Clarence’s daughter, want to leave you with is of a fiercely engaged protector who talked a good game about getting paid — “Life is all about numbers,” Avant says on camera frequently — but whose personal reward was obviously creating a web of friends and talent who grasped the meaning of working hard, earning their due and giving back. Avant’s skin color is one aspect of his inspiring story, for sure, but the heart inside “The Black Godfather” — and the ways an honorable soul with personal power can effect meaningful change — spins its own joyful melody.
‘The Black Godfather’
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Starts June 7, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; also available on Netflix