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The Black List TV Review

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HBO Documentary Profiles Prominent African-Americans

You might have missed the premiere of The Black List, since this fascinating new HBO series premiered on August 25th, the same night Michelle Obama was addressing the Democratic Convention. Fortunately, you can still catch replays of the first installment of the groundbreaking program (check local listings) which features revealing interviews with 23 prominent African-Americans.

The project is the brainchild of still photographer/moviemaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and former NY Times film critic Elvis Mitchell who collaborated to produce an intriguing show far superior to the Black in America special which aired on CNN earlier this summer. For this documentary employed a novel format to provoke soul-searching, thereby eliciting heartfelt answers.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

An unseen and unheard Mitchell posed piercing questions about being black to his 23 subjects. And the emotional content of their responses is heightened because each appears onscreen alone, with nothing behind them but a stark, blank backdrop. This forces the audience to focus on their words, which have been invariably edited and distilled down to their most evocative moments.

The icons participating represent a diversity of fields ranging from academia to athletics to activism to the arts. While most are household names, such as Reverend Al Sharpton, Colin Powell, Chris Rock and Serena Williams, some are not instantly recognizable, like Time-Warner CEO Richard Parsons, curator Thelma Golden and Negro League baseball great Mahlon Duckett.

One person you might be surprised to learn he's even black is Slash, the lead guitarist of the heavy metal group Guns N' Roses. He talks earnestly about how uncomfortable he felt when lead singer Axl Rose wrote a song with the N-word in the lyrics.

Others' reflections prove to be just as interesting, whether it's Rock ruminating about working at Red Lobster, Colin Powell declaring that the Armed Forces would never have been integrated back in the Forties if it had been left to Congress to pass a law, or Susan Rice talking about being a Rhodes Scholar.

CEO Parsons was particularly insightful, observing that when you're black, "people feel compelled to bring up the notion of ethnicity with you. We'll know we've made real progress when you just get to be a person." And if the country ever becomes that colorblind, shows like this will finally be obsolete.

Meanwhile, a salute to Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell is in order for producing an innovative series likely to revamp the way in which television studios approach the personal portrait genre.

Excellent (4 stars)
Rated TV14 for adult language and adult content.
Running Time: 87 minutes
Studio: HBO

The Black List playdates:

Mon 9/8 11:45 PM HBO - EAST
Mon 9/8 11:45 PM HBO LATINO - EAST
Tue 9/9 02:45 AM HBO - WEST
Tue 9/9 02:45 AM HBO LATINO - WEST
Sat 9/13 10:00 AM HBO - EAST
Sat 9/13 10:00 AM HBO LATINO - EAST
Sat 9/13 01:00 PM HBO - WEST
Sat 9/13 01:00 PM HBO LATINO - WEST
Mon 9/15 10:00 AM HBO2 - EAST
Mon 9/15 01:00 PM HBO2 - WEST
Mon 9/15 11:00 PM HBO2 - EAST
Tue 9/16 02:00 AM HBO2 - WEST
Sat 9/20 11:00 AM HBO2 - EAST
Sat 9/20 02:00 PM HBO2 - WEST
Thu 9/25 09:20 AM HBO ZONE - EAST
Thu 9/25 12:20 PM HBO ZONE - WEST


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