What do you get when renowned portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell decide to collaborate on a film on black culture, inspired by the idea of a coffee table book? You get The Black List (recently bought by HBO Documentaries and retitled The Black List: Volume One), a portrait of black America that is at once intimate and larger than life. Picture a gorgeous coffee table book filled with portraits of famous African-American men and women, brought to life and saying the most erudite and occasionally unexpected things, and you have an inkling of what's been captured in this film.

Born over a lunch date between Greefield-Sanders and Mitchell, The Black List, the title of which is a deliberate play on the negative connotation often given to the word "black," was initially conceived as a book, but Greenfield-Sanders quickly realized that it needed to be a film, done as a series of interviews with prominent African-Americans. Mitchell also has a book in the works that will flesh on the snippets of interviews in the film into longer stories.
To bring the project to life, the filmmakers put together a list of 175 interview subjects at that lunch date, starting with Greenfield-Sanders' friends, author Toni Morrison and museum curator Thelma Golden. The final set of interviews is a fascinating mix that cuts a broad swath across African-American culture, ranging from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to producer/actor/director Keenan Ivory Wayans, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Susan Rice, former Assistant Secretary of State, currently a foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama.

Visually, the interviews look like a Greenfield-Sanders portrait brought to life, with each person talking directly to the camera (and therefore, to the audience). Mitchell interviewed the subjects, but the decision was made in the beginning that he would not be seen or heard on screen. The result is a remarkably intimate documentary in which each person talking feels like they're just sharing a personal story, rather than the typical series of talking heads with frequent cuts to the interviewer nodding sagely as he listens to his subject. Mitchell interviews, but in so doing he feels more like a catalyst making his subjects comfortable and drawing their stories out than a journalist asking questions -- a feat that's harder than you might think.

The real relevance of this film, politically and socially, is that it's not a series "experts" talking about black culture, the impact of poverty, or how swell it is that these people overcame being African-American to succeed in their films. So much of what we see about black culture tends to fall along those lines of painting African-Americans purely as victims; it's refreshing, therefore, to see a film like this where powerful and influential African-Americans are just telling their stories without anyone asking them, "So how was your career path affected by the color of your skin?" Race is an issue that's discussed by the subjects, of course, but it's talked about through the lens of personal stories and black culture.

Some of the interviews are revelations, as the intimacy of the interviews forces the shedding of public personas. Al Sharpton, for example, is revealed to be thoughtful and intelligent as he talks about the influence of growing up in the Pentecostal Church, where theatrics and religion merge. If you've ever been to a Pentecostal church, hearing Sharpton talk about its impact on him gives you a completely different perspective on the theatrics he uses in his own public life. Sean Combs also comes across in a way I've never see in an interview with him; absent here is the usual arrogant bravado one tends to associate with Combs; when he talks about how he "drapes himself in diamonds" because he deserves them, you can almost see the little boy he was growing up, wanting longingly to be someone important.

The authenticity of personal experiences captured here, and the nature of the stories, keeps the flow of information from feeling too overwhelming. Perhaps most surprising was Chris Rock, whose interview is the climax of the film. I'm not a huge fan of Rock, but he was far more engaging here than I'd expected. Rock talks about being black: "... You're always black. There's always going to be an overreaction one way or the other regarding your presence, be it good or bad." The same could be said of the presence of The Black List; there will be white viewers who will look at it and say, "So what? How is the experience of these folks talking about being black relevant to me?" Others will look at the film and deny the experiences of the subjects, claiming that because these are successful African-Americans, their existence proves that racism is not an issue in America anymore.

Even here at open-minded Sundance, I've heard people dismissing The Black List as "that black film," as if its blackness makes it somehow less relevant; to view this as just a film about African-Americans and racism, though, is to overlook the tapestry of common human experiences that are woven together by the collective stories of the interview subjects. I found myself just yesterday on the shuttle simultaneously recommending and defending the film to a group of fest-goers who'd asked me, after spying my press badge, which films I would recommend here.

The Black List goes beyond being just a documentary into being a social and political project, as well as a means of showing young African-Americans stories they can relate to from people they admire, in a way that, one hopes, might inspire them to reach for their own dreams, regardless of income level or family background. Many of the stories here, too, will also speak to women and other minority groups; there is a certain commonality of experiences that comes from being a part of any group marginalized politically and socially, and even in 2008, unfortunately, that marginalization is more of a reality than many care to realize. As the pilot program for the media collective Freemind Ventures, The Black List serves as an entry point to inspire change through multiple channels: the film, the book, a user-generated website where others can share their own experiences around being black in America. As a part of a greater discourse on race issues in America, The Black List inspires as effectively as it informs.