US | The Black List Returns with Stories of the Past in Volume Three

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By Grace Aneiza Ali

Originally published on February 9, 2010 for The Defenders Online, a publication of the NAACP LDF

“Stories matter. Many stories matter,” said Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie in her speech on “The Danger of the Single Story” at the TEDGlobal 2009 forum last year. She warned against one-dimensional views and singular stories that often depict Africans as “fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved.”

The idea—that our stories are in fact multi-dimensional and multi-layered—is at the core of the The Black List.The HBO documentary series delves into the mosaic of experiences—of struggle and triumph, beginnings and endings, failures and perseverance—from some of the more notable African Americans today. “We don’t all come from any one story,” said President and CEO of The United Negro College Fund, Michael Lomax, who is featured in the film.

On the heels of the previously successful volumes one (2008) and two (2009) and as a tribute to Black History Month, HBO celebrated the premiere of The Black List: Volume Three at The Paley Center for Media in New York City on February 3. In this third edition of an ambitious and innovative multi-media project, the creators Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, photographer, and Elvis Mitchell, film critic, continue to explore the breadth and scope of expressions of blackness.

Featured in this edition of one-on-one conversations are Lee A. Daniels, the film director, Whoopi Goldberg, Hill Harper, Beverly Johnson, Debra Lee, John Legend, Michael Lomax and LaTanya Richardson. Their candid conversations with Mitchell, who is never seen or heard in the film, complicate our view of success and challenge any misperceptions that blackness is easily definable. “Even though we may have been successful, we all have stories of struggle to tell,” said Faye Wattleton, president of The Center for the Advancement of Women, who is featured in volume one.

When the first volume of the The Black List series premiered in 2008, much of the nation was obsessed with debating whether then Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama was black enough—or too black. Now, two years later, in the turbulent second year of his presidency, The Black List: Volume Three appears against the backdrop of another racially charged debate: Have we reached a post-racial status? But it contributes to the discussion in an unusual way by focusing on African-American roots—the stories of the past.

Academy Award-winning actress, comedian, and television host Whoopi Goldberg shared her childhood love for all things science fiction. Hers was a fascination tempered by the fact that in the 1960s the roles for African Americans in film and television were either entrenched in stereotypes or virtually non-existent.

“Black people were never in the future, never!” Goldberg said .

So when she saw Uhura on Star Trek (played by the stunning Nichelle Nichols), the black female character who spoke fluent Swahili and served as communications officer aboard the Enterprise star ship, Goldberg received a clear vision of what she wanted to be. “Not only were black people going to be in the future, they were going to be fly,” she quipped. In 1988, some twenty years since first seeing the bold, beautiful, and in-charge Nichols on screen, Goldberg herself would join the ranks of Star Trek: The Next Generation in a recurring guest star role as the bartender Guinan. The film pairs stories of roots and origins with stories of firsts.

Supermodel and entrepreneur Beverly Johnson tells us that as honored as she was to be the first black model to grace the cover of American Vogue in 1974, she was also a bit angry when, at the time, people complimented her on being the top black model in the country. “I’m the top model, period,” she boasted.

In addition to exploring the early roots and catalysts for inspiration of these prominent figures, filmmakers Greenfield-Sanders and Mitchell also take us behind their public glitz and glamour. We discover that the often-controversial Oscar-nominated director Lee A. Daniels, (whose film credits include Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, Monsters Ball and Shadowboxer) spent much of his time with African-American women in an HIV/AIDS clinic in Chelsea, New York City. We hear from UNCF President/CEO Michael Lomax that he and his siblings still grapple with the lingering emotional and psychological effects of living in segregated Tuskegee, Alabama in the 1960s.

“My great-grandma was born a slave. When you put things in an historical perspective you realize how short the time has been; the enormity of our progress is profound,” said Wattleton, who believes that although each of their stories are unique, the common thread connecting their individual experiences is perseverance.

In celebrating this cadre of African-American voices, The Black List: Volume Three reinforces Chimamanda Adichie’s insistence on the value of multiple stories that, as she says, “can be used to empower, and to humanize…when we realize that there is never a single story about any place [or people], we regain a kind of paradise.”

In addition to the three-volume documentary series, The Black List Project includes a museum exhibition of photographic portraits, a book of photographs and monologues, and an educational initiative with The United Negro College Fund.