Wednesday, February 11, 2009

HBO: THE BLACK LIST VOL. 2The Evening Class Interview With Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell

This entry is dedicated to Ave Montague, founder of the San Francisco Black Film Festival, who passed away late last month. Her contributions to Bay Area culture live on.

An atmosphere of trust pervaded the HBO West Coast premiere of
The Black List: Volume Two co-presented by the San Francisco Black Film Festival at San Francisco's Cowell Theatre, Fort Mason; not only the trust the film's subjects placed in filmmakers Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell (who—in turn—trusted that these individuals would speak to the diversity of the African American experience in the 21st Century); but, the trust of the film's first audience that their experience of the film would prove illuminating, challenging and inspiring. Said trust was well-invested all around.

The Black List: Volume Two—which debuts Thursday, February 26 (8:00-9:00PM ET/PT), exclusively on
HBO—follows last year's acclaimed HBO special The Black List: Volume One by continuing to profile some of today's most fascinating African Americans. From the childhood inspirations that shaped their ambitions, to the evolving American landscape they helped define, to the importance of preserving a unique cultural identity for future generations, these prominent individuals offer a unique look into the zeitgeist of Black America, redefining the traditional pejorative notion of a blacklist.

The list of people featured in The Black List: Volume Two includes activist and artist Majora Carter; activist and academic Angela Davis; producer Suzanne de Passe; actor Laurence Fishburne; Anglican Bishop Barbara Harris; Massachusettes Governor Deval Patrick; pastor T.D. Jakes; physician and academic Valerie Montgomery-Rice, M.D.; filmmaker Tyler Perry; singer Charley Pride; fashion designer Patrick Robinson; actress Maya Rudolph; musician RZA; filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles; and artist Kara Walker.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell conceptualized what would become "The Black List Project" in May 2006, discussing the idea of collaborating on a book on Black culture, which led to the documentary. They wanted "The Black List Project" to be not just an enumeration of obstacles overcome, but also a unique source of insights that would emphasize the elegance and determination of its subjects. A 2008 Sundance Film Festival selection, The Black List: Volume One debuted on HBO last August.

My heartfelt thanks to Suzanne Baum, HBO's regional publicist, who invited me to sit down with Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell earlier in the afternoon to discuss the project. Greenfield-Sanders and I kicked off our conversation while awaiting Elvis Mitchell's arrival. Photographs courtesy of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Timothy, I'm quite fond of your photography, which I knew first through Vanity Fair magazine, and then—I have to admit—I was attracted to your portraits in XXX.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: My volume on porn stars! We showed that at the
John Berggruen Gallery here in San Francisco. They represent me here in the Bay Area and that particular show was very popular.

Guillén: But the series that has intrigued me recently is of your portraits of injured soldiers from the war in Iraq. I would love to see that exhibit.

Greenfield-Sanders: I would like to show that here in San Francisco. It's a powerful show. It's currently at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in Vermont. It was up during Thanksgiving so the exhibition was tied into giving our thanks and appreciation to all these people. It's a strong show.

Guillén: Can we speak of your signature style? I love portraiture and I'm delighted that you and Elvis have collaborated on this project, combining the forces of your individual portraiture skill sets; Elvis with his communicative and conversational style and you with your elegant visuals.

Greenfield-Sanders: The Black List was very much a combination of my portrait style and Elvis's portrait style. His is certainly a way of bringing out the inner person; bringing out something that's new or that they haven't exposed before and—for me—the same in a way. I always try to find that side of someone that they secretly see; how he or she sees themselves. When you look in the mirror you can kind of turn a certain way and you go, "Yeah, I look pretty good today." I'm really good at finding that.

Guillén: As I was reviewing your photography today, I was reminded of one of my favorite descriptions of mythologist Joe Campbell when he spoke about how an image can be "transparent to transcendence." There is a transparency to your portraiture. Your subjects are accessible and their individuality opens up into something much larger. I don't quite know how to express it….

Greenfield-Sanders: I will take it the way you just said it. That's very well-said. People always ask me how do I do it and the truth is I don't know how I do it; but, I know how to be with someone. I'm capable of sensing somebody's insecurities and where they're coming from. I can put myself in their shoes in a sense. I'm good at that and I think it shows in the pictures. The idea with The Black List was also to translate my portrait style into film—to take that simple, clean backdrop that I use, one light, the sense that it's about the subject, not me the photographer, and move that into video, into film—that's what I wanted to do. I've always believed that—if you can look at a picture or a photograph and it's interesting to you—it's certainly going to be interesting when someone's talking and what they're saying is well-edited and compelling. You can watch that for an hour and a half. People say The Black List is just talking heads; but, it's not. It's so much more.

Guillén: Reviewing footage from the first volume of The Black List, I was impressed with—as you say—it's simple, clean look. I admired its grey aesthetic. Can you talk a bit about that?

Greenfield-Sanders: Absolutely. The Black List is deceptively simple. What I mean by that is that it's a film that—when you look at it—it looks so simple in the sense that, "Oh, it's just one light, it's a clean backdrop, the people are looking at the camera, and what's the big deal?" The big deal is that all of those decisions were critical. One wrong step and it wouldn't have worked. The idea of having that clean backdrop, the simplicity of it, and looking right at the camera rather than looking over the shoulder or cutting away to Elvis nodding or something like 60 Minutes, we didn't use any of that. What we did was deliberate and, I think, much more powerful.

Guillén: To secure the continuity of that visual aesthetic, however, when you approached your potential subjects, did you tell them how the film was going to look?

Greenfield-Sanders: I'll tell you, the first person we interviewed was Thelma Golden. In that interview—and you don't see it in the final film because we fixed it—but, in that interview I shot the first half against black velvet and then I thought, "Let's change to grey." So I wasn't sure yet. Her interview was really a test. I told her, "We don't really know how it's going to look yet so you'll be a guinea pig. Elvis will interview you and I'm going to play around with the look of it." So we started with the black velvet and in the middle of it I said, "Let's stop. Let's change the background to grey." The grey was instantly it; so obvious to me. The skin tones worked against the grey. All the elements fell right into place. There was one line that she had—"People thought that I worked for Thelma Golden; not that I was Thelma Golden"—that was shot against the black and so we had to rotoscope it, get the black out, and drop in the grey.

[At this juncture Elvis Mitchell arrived. Suzanne Baum introduced us.]

Elvis Mitchell: What a pleasure!

Greenfield-Sanders: [To Elvis, referencing me] I can already tell he's smart.

Guillén: Elvis and I "met" over the phone promoting Under the Influence for Turner Classic Movies. If you recall, Elvis, one of the questions I asked you was about the follow-up interview and so here I am actually getting to do a follow-up interview with you!

Mitchell: It's such a pleasure to meet you. I'm such a fan of your stuff and it's great to see you.

Guillén: Thank you. I appreciate that. Timothy and I were just discussing the grey aesthetic of The Black List.

Greenfield-Sanders: The grey backdrop.

Guillén: Not only the grey backdrop but the wardrobing. I was impressed with this beautiful, somewhat monochromatic continuity in the documentary's visual look. Was that ultimately your decision, Timothy?

Greenfield-Sanders: Certainly the translation of the still portraiture to film was taking my 30 years of portrait photography and moving it to film; but, we would sit with the subjects, they would come in with their outfits, and we'd try to say, "Bring something else." So Charley Pride, for example, had another coat and it looked better. We tried to think what would work best. I tend to not tell people what to wear. I hope they wear something decent; but, I ask them to bring something else in case it's a disaster.

Guillén: You didn't tell them to wear grey?

Greenfield-Sanders: No. I think we asked them to keep it simple. When people come for a portrait, I always say, "Don't wear horizontal stripes." If it's a black and white portrait, I ask them to avoid wearing something white because white is too bright. If you look at a portrait, your eye will go right to the white shirt, instead of the face. Those are little tricks.

Guillén: The two volumes of The Black List are the centerpiece, I understand, of a much larger project?

Mitchell: That's the hope.

Guillén: Can you talk about how the two of you developed the project? And with you particularly, Elvis, we've already touched upon why you decided to remove yourself from the interviews but I remain interested in the presence of your writing, how you set it up with your subjects. Did they know the questions you were going to ask?

Mitchell: No, I've never done anything like that. I feel that—when people know the questions—they come with an answer or sometimes it puts a pressure on them because they're thinking ahead to the questions you haven't asked yet. My feeling about interviews has always been to make them as much like conversations as possible, which is to not sit with a list of questions. They will think of it as an "interview" if they see you with a stack of cards or a clipboard; but, if it's eye contact, it makes it that much easier to just talk. I do as much research as possible so I can classify if something can be thrown away. If I hear the interview going in a certain way and I haven't come across that material, then I know that's the direction to follow. In the first volume of The Black List, we were inventing this as we were going along and it was really easy. We didn't yet have The Black List: Volume One that we had completed or that people had seen. So it was inchoate, finding itself, growing and coming into flower each time we conducted an interview. That's really a fun thing to do: to build something from the ground up and have it become a whole different thing than you first imagined. You do the interviews, they're for about an hour, and then you edit them down, you try to get the essence of somebody that makes a real statement too and a statement that many of these people have never made publicly before. To get that was all I really wanted to do.

When we first started doing this, there was no venue for this. There was no destination. It hadn't gone to HBO yet. It wasn't a finished film yet. People were saying it was a bad idea. People said, "Nobody's going to sit for this. Nobody wants to see these interviews one right after the other or you have to intercut them; you can't just have one conversation go from beginning to end." But, these were all things I knew would work. People are always saying the public is stupid; but the public isn't stupid.

Guillén: No. Well, some of them are but not all of them.

Mitchell: Thanks for looking at me when you say that!

Guillén: [Laughs.]

Greenfield-Sanders: The Black List was radical in the sense that we went against certain notions of filmmaking—you have to cut away; you have to have lots of music; you have to have action—all those things that you got to have. We just didn't believe you had to have them. We thought the story would hold. You should understand that when they're talking to Elvis, they're seeing him on something like a teleprompter. We have a special camera that has two lenses in it and is actually a kind of teleprompter so they're looking at Elvis's face when they're talking to Elvis.

Guillén: Similar to Errol Morris's approach?

Greenfield-Sanders: Morris does a similar thing. I'm not quite sure how he does it. I think he's right there screaming the questions. [Chuckles.]

Mitchell: Well, he's there but there's no microphone. There have been times in his films when you can actually hear his voice.

Guillén: Both of you are masters of elicitation, all the more remarkable because—if I understand this correctly—you didn't have a through line when you were filming the interviews?

Mitchell: Let me ask you a question, though. How often do you have a through line when you do an interview? We talked about this. You do the preparation. You try to follow it through, understanding that the best interviews have a life of their own. You don't want to control that. That's what we brought to The Black List.

Guillén: I definitely prefer to come prepared and then whatever happens, happens.

Greenfield-Sanders: Even with the photographs, all that I'm keeping in mind is that, "Well, I might have done this already twice so I've got to find something else with the body that I can do that's going to make the pictures look a little different." Because otherwise I'd have 25 pictures of people standing the same way. As a photographer, in the back of your mind you have to always say, "Well, this person holds his hands in a way that's comfortable for him."

Guillén: Justin Chang in his Variety review of The Black List: Volume One inferred it was prescient on the part of HBO to strategize the project in volumes. Clearly it can continue on and on because there are so many African American personalities the two of you could approach. I'm interested in how the two of you decided upon the initial selection. You both had a rolodex. How did you decide who to include?

Greenfield-Sanders: We sat down—what was it, three and a half years ago now, Elvis?—in a Thai restaurant in the East Village….

Mitchell: Timothy started talking about it as a photography project and then he said, "This might make a movie. There's a movie in this." Then we started working together. There was a voluminous list….

Greenfield-Sanders: A wish list.

Mitchell: There were so many great people. That's when we decided we could almost make this ad infinitum. What probably really helped was that we had the Sundance deadline. Having a deadline that we had to hit meant that we only had so much time. Otherwise, we'd still be working on it.

Guillén: Interestingly, having made your initial selection of who to profile, it allows the audience to fantasize, "Oh well, why didn't they speak to so-and-so? Or I wonder if they're going to speak to so-and-so? When are they going to speak to so-and-so?" Which is nice. It's a good feeling of anticipation. Personally, I like the mix of being turned on to personalities I'm unfamiliar with in combination with people I do know. It's a great mixture the two of you have accomplished. With regard to The Black List being a potentially ongoing project, would you ever venture outside of the United States to profile non-American personalities?

Mitchell: No, because The Black List is about the African American experience. It's the only experience I can think of where it's a culture built on taking the detritus and building it into something that surpasses what anybody expected. It's a slave culture. When we talk to someone like Colin Powell, who comes from the Caribbean, he still comes from a national cultural tradition that has been passed down that wasn't invented a little more than 300 years ago. I mean, this is a polyglot society that African Americans have built out of remains. My grandmother used to have a saying—that I'm sure is not specific to her—but, when you're poor you use every part of the pig but the oink. That's what Black culture's been about, using all these things to triumph over debasement and devaluation of Black people as a culture. I think that's specific to African Americans.

Guillén: You also deploy a strategy which—as a Chicano involved in Chicano cultural politics and a gay man in Queer cultural politics—words which have been aimed as pejoratives get flipped around and recontextualized with a new valence and invested pride. Claiming the word "queer" is a specific example. Can you speak to your decision to name the documentary The Black List?

Greenfield-Sanders: That was Elvis's idea from the very beginning. After a meeting—I think we were having tea at my house—he said, "I want to call it The Black List." We had some pushback from a couple of people—we tested it with one or two people—and they said, "Well, it should have a subtitle. You can't just have The Black List. It needs to be something else…."

Guillén: Because of the negative connotations of blacklisting?

Greenfield-Sanders: Yeah. And I think Elvis was absolutely right. It's since become a very positive thing to be on The Black List.

Mitchell: I just feel it to be timely, really. It's that thing you're saying about taking something that's derogatory and an insult and making something positive out of it. So much of Black culture has been about that anyways. I felt like, "This is the 21st Century. Let's start out by making a blacklist be something people want to be on."

Guillén: Now that being on The Black List has become such a positive experience, have you had people approach you as to why they weren't included in the first and second volumes?

Greenfield-Sanders: Second volume, yes. With the first volume, nobody really knew what it was until all of a sudden HBO bought it and then it became "a thing."

Guillén: The first volume did well at Sundance….

Greenfield-Sanders: It did fabulously at Sundance. The word-of-mouth has become so strong. People who have seen it haven't seen it once; they've seen it five times. Everyone I talk to, they watch it over and over again.

Guillén: Myself, I love hearing people talk about their life experience. Especially about how they have come to a certain station in their lives, which is just one of the reasons I have thoroughly enjoyed Under the Influence. I love hearing people say, "This is what I do because I was influenced by what this person did." That continuity in shaping biography is one of my favorite themes.

Even though—as you say—you didn't really have a through line for The Black List in preconception, can you discern a through line in the project now?

Mitchell: Well, yeah. For me it's about the African American experience in the 21st Century. That's a fairly vague through line, I'll grant you that, but it's also a through line that includes so many different permutations. It's not just one thing. What we wanted to do with The Black List was eliminate reductive thinking about the Black experience in this country. That through line gives us the ability to let many people speak to that and methodically—one person after the other—erases one archetype, one stereotype, one after the next.

Guillén: I was intrigued when reading the press notes for this volume that—inspired by The Black List: Volume One—HBO launched a "Who's on Your Black List?" contest, asking viewers to submit a video of themselves, a relative, a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor or anyone else who has a story to tell about his or her experience of what it's like to be Black in America today. The four winning videos were selected by a distinguished panel of judges and general viewers and the winners visited New York, where they were interviewed and photographed by you two. [Select clips from these interviews will be showcased on various HBO platforms throughout February.] Can you speak about that?

Greenfield-Sanders: It was fantastic!

Guillén: I bring it up because—though I thoroughly commend how the two of you have created these portraits of African Americans who have achieved so much—I wonder if that doesn't leave the "average Joe" feeling that they can't quite compare? I truly admire that the "Who's on Your Black List?" contest opened the project up to the "average Joe" to express their experience as well. This is important for me in the work that I do. For every "celebrity" I interview, I try to balance it by talking to someone unknown or just starting out. I believe it's important for people to realize that the demographic of film culture is diverse and that a print trafficker is as important as a movie star, albeit less celebrated.

It reminds me of an episode in the life of the diarist Anaïs Nin when in her later years on college tour some young student in one of her audiences stood up and protested that it wasn't fair because Anaïs knew all these famous people like Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. Anaïs responded firmly that these people were not famous when she knew them. That was a revelatory comment for me about the authenticity of the creative impulse and the vicissitudes of celebrity and fame requiring a necessary balance between both.

Mitchell: That's a dream come true to be compared to Anaïs Nin so thank you! [Laughs.] I've been looking for that my entire life.

Guillén: As I said before, the two of you are masters of elicitation and the value of the portrait artist is the ability to elicit the spirit of the time through the individual. That's why I admire so much your series on the wounded Iraq vets, Timothy, it speaks not only to their individual lives but the life of our country at this particular time. Can we speak about that? Your focus on groups of people? You've photographed porno stars, wounded vets, members of the art world, political figures, The Black List, what motivates that?

Greenfield-Sanders: I always like to work with themes like that. I like to shoot a group of people and sometimes I'm more obsessive with one group than others. The art world series I've worked on for 20 years and eventually exhibited 700 portraits at one time in one show. I've probably shot 75-100 musicians at this point. Dozens of politicians. The Black List has involved 40 portraits so far.

Guillén: Did Elvis approach you with the idea of photographing African Americans?

Mitchell: No, it started with Timothy.

Greenfield-Sanders: It was an idea that I had mulling around as a new project to do. I thought there was something about the African American experience—I wasn't sure what it was—but, several people in The Black List: Volume One were friends of mine, Elvis was a friend of mine and a neighbor, and we just sat down and had lunch. I had just done XXX. I had just done a movie, a book, and a traveling show so I thought that was a working formula for whatever I would do next. Elvis and I just got excited about it.

Guillén: Talk to me about the larger project. What are you hoping for with The Black List Project?

Greenfield-Sanders: Well, let's take Hispanics for an example because it's an interesting question. The Hispanic community is very different from the African American community in the sense that Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans don't see each other in any way connected, other than that they speak Spanish. Am I right?

Guillén: That's a fair assessment.

Greenfield-Sanders: You could take all the different Hispanic groups in America and what is their commonality? What is it? I'm not sure.

Guillén: We've all been seriously messed up by Catholicism.

Greenfield-Sanders: [Laughs.] That's actually a great idea.

Guillén: Coincidentally, I'm actually preoccupied with these concerns of late because—as you probably already know, Elvis—Turner Classic Movies will be featuring the representation of Chicanos and Latinos for this year's upcoming edition of Race and Hollywood. I'm arranging interviews with Robert Osborne's co-host Chon Noriega, among others, to get a head start on that. Myself, I am an asimilado, an assimilated fair-skinned Chicano, which has caused so many problems for me, even as it has introduced wondrous opportunities for ethnic disguise.

Greenfield-Sanders: Would you do The Hispanic List in Spanish? I think not. I think it would be done in English.

Guillén: Probably it would be in Spanglish.

Greenfield-Sanders: Though not every successful Hispanic person speaks Spanish anymore, shockingly.

Guillén: But returning to the larger Black List Project, what constitutes its educational arm? Because there is a strong community outreach attached to the Project.

Mitchell: I think of it like a Smithsonian project, like
the Lomax project, just going out and finding people who tell their stories. It becomes education by virtue of that. You talked about the "average Joe" and I'll venture that—going back to the example of Anaïs Nin—at some point everyone involved in The Black List was, in effect, an "average Joe"; they weren't famous or celebrated; but, they had a mission. More importantly, they all had a story to tell. Everybody has a story to tell. Why not get those stories? Why not archive them? And in a way that doesn't feel like cultural anthropology where the people who are being interviewed are being talked down to? In fact, absenting the interviewer from that and letting the people tell their own stories? In the continuance of this, I see that as a way that The Black List Project will play itself out.

Greenfield-Sanders: I'm certainly excited for you to see "Who's On Your Black List" because we took the formula and did it with "average Joes"—if you will—and it's fascinating. Elvis and I talked about this the other day that these interviewees could fit into The Black List: Volume Two; they're so interesting. They may not be highly-accomplished famous people; but, their stories are fascinating.

Guillén: Here in San Francisco, there is a perfect story on this theme. Last year around this time I received an email from Barry Jenkins. Do you know Barry, Elvis?

Mitchell: I'm interviewing him tomorrow for my radio show!

Greenfield-Sanders: Who is he?

Mitchell: He has a film called
Medicine for Melancholy, which is a Black art film.

Guillén: He approached me tentatively, unsure if it was proper protocol to do so, and advised that he had a film premiering at the SXSW Film Festival and would I be interested in taking a look at it? I told him I'm always interested in looking at independent films as long as—if I didn't like it—I didn't have to say anything about it. He sent me a screener and I did one of the first write-ups on the film. It was a bit indelicate….

Mitchell: Because you jumped the premiere date?

Guillén: Yes, but notwithstanding, Matt Dentler at SXSW picked up the review on the festival blog and Barry has expressed to me that he felt it helped generate interest in the film. Since then to now, Barry's arc has been thrilling to watch. I very much enjoyed the film and I'm so happy it's earned the accolades it deserves, including a front cover spread on Filmmaker, and three nominations for Independent Spirit Awards including Best First Feature, Best Cinematography and the "Someone to Watch" Award. I'm proud and happy that I championed the film early on. I felt it had an important social statement to make about dwindling ethnicities in San Francisco, which is another reason why I'm delighted that The Black List: Volume Two is premiering here in San Francisco in association with the San Francisco Black Film Festival. Speaking of Volume Two, are there intentions to go on with volumes three, four?

Greenfield-Sanders: If you were to write that HBO would be remiss not to commission Volume Three, we would love to hear that.

Guillén: Wasn't it HBO's idea to present The Black List in volumes?

Greenfield-Sanders: You know how it actually came about? There was a discussion about how we would say to people that these are not the only people….

Mitchell: They were worried about it and I was always ready to defend this because—as you were saying—people would ask, "Why isn't this person in it or that person?" I would say, "There's no way this can be definitive." Then there was some talk about whether we should call it a work in progress and, obviously, if you call it a work in progress, it sounds like it's not finished. So I said, "Let's just call it Volume One." The great thing about calling it Volume One is everyone thinks, "Well, where's Volume Two?" I didn't know that when I said that.

Greenfield-Sanders: We were happy for them to add the Volume One to the title because it created the need for Volume Two.

Guillén: Did you film many of the personalities that are in Volume Two at the same time as Volume One?

Greenfield-Sanders: No.

Guillén: So filming Volume Two was a distinct trajectory altogether?

Mitchell: There were people that we wanted for the first volume that—for scheduling reasons—just weren't available and they're in the second volume. But it's not like we had leftovers. There's no cutting room floor material in Volume Two. As they say on cable: "All new!"

Guillén: In having done the second volume, did you approach it differently having learned from the first volume? Is there anything you feel is significantly different about Volume Two than Volume One?

Mitchell: There were different expectations for Volume Two because Volume One existed. Again, the first time around—to quote a poet—we were in "the undiscovered country." We hadn't done this before. They didn't know what it was. We didn't know what it was. We didn't have any final product to show anybody.

Greenfield-Sanders: We were, in effect, nobody other than who we are in our own right.

Guillén: Which sometimes gets in the way?

Greenfield-Sanders: Yeah.

Mitchell: No, I think it didn't. It was so exciting to be doing something like this. It was finding itself. Nobody knew what it was going to be—including us—and now having this book and the movie, people know what it is. Sometimes people come in ready to be on The Black List. That's a flattering thing and a little daunting because we want people to come into it fresh and open themselves up to it.

Guillén: I'm still intrigued by your writing credit for this. You say you filmed each of your interviewees for an hour and then distilled it down to four-minute portraits?

Greenfield-Sanders: We took the best of that hour's worth of footage and cut it down to 15 minutes of really good things where we couldn't get rid of a single word. Then we cut that down. We tried to find an arc—a story—there and that's what they are; they're little stories.

Guillén: Is it in that shaping and editing that you feel your writing credit comes into play?

Mitchell: Well, shaping the interviews as well.

Greenfield-Sanders: Sometimes I'd say to Elvis, "God, that was amazing. They talked about this or that!" And he'd say, "Yeah, but they talked about that in 1997 in the So-and-So Weekly", or something like that." It was always this effort to find things that were new and to tell that story at the same time.

Mitchell: Again, it was like Under The Influence in that respect because nobody's coming in with an agenda, an axe to grind or a product to sell, which creates an entirely different kind of interview situation.

Guillén: What are your respective hopes for The Black List?

Greenfield-Sanders: It's happened, really. I hope more and more people see it. But everything we hoped would happen has come true. We made a film when just to make a film these days is so difficult. And it got on television and there's a book and a traveling show and potentially an educational project. The DVD's at Target. All of these things.

Guillén: The traveling show are your photographs in exhibition?

Greenfield-Sanders: Yes, that show is currently at the Brooklyn Museum and I'm hoping it will come here to San Francisco. What do you think, Elvis? What do you hope will happen?

Mitchell: I just hoped it would get made because the thing I said from the outset is that I knew Black people would respond to it.

Guillén: And have they?

Mitchell: Oh yes. I just knew there was a hunger for this because nothing like this had been done before. Even when African Americans hear about The Black List and what it's about, they think they know what it's going to be. They think it's going to be a pro forma interviewer on camera—all the things you talked about before—and it's none of those things. There's this excitement of the filmmaking and there's this engagement with the subjects talking and telling their stories and you just want to hear them. It's just people telling their own stories and what's more entertaining than that?

Greenfield-Sanders: I also want to say that it's enormously rewarding to me and I'm sure to Elvis to sense the way the film has affected people. When we go around and show this film, you can tell that it has changed people's lives in some ways, or made them feel better about themselves.

Mitchell: Michael, for a long time if you were different you were told you were a bad person. People explaining themselves was the next step after that, which is finally where the great story is: people explaining themselves and discovering that they're not bad people for being different. It's those differences that force value judgments that—with any luck—are no longer being made because people are different. Again, look at the President of the United States!

Guillén: Speaking of the President of the United States, I know that you have photographed him, Timothy, but will he be in one of the future Black List volumes?

Mitchell: I don't know. What do you know? Would you make a call because we're ready to go to work!

Greenfield-Sanders: We would love it. We started this film before people even knew who Barack Obama was. Some people knew he was a senator but not everybody. As he became bigger and bigger, he became harder and harder for us to get to because an hour of his time was fundraising. We couldn't really get him to sit for us. Now, we would be thrilled to have him, of course.

Guillén: You might have to wait until he cleans up the mess he's inherited.

Greenfield-Sanders: We'd be happy to have Michelle.

Guillén: As I was reviewing your website this morning, Timothy, I was moved by your portraits of both Odetta and Eartha Kitt. I appreciated that you were focusing on your portraits in memoriam. Are there any African Americans that have passed that you wish you could have incorporated into this project? Any that come immediately to mind?

Greenfield-Sanders: So many. James Brown.

Mitchell: When I was doing an event in Detroit last summer, it was the week that Isaac Hayes and Bernie Mac had died. I had the chance to talk to Isaac Hayes. I had always wondered when I first heard "Walk On By" if he had been influenced by any of Enrico Morricone's scores; specifically, Once Upon A Time In the West. He said absolutely. You can hear the guitars, the way the strings are used and the chorale voices. I had always thought he had been influenced by Morricone and to hear him admit it reminded me that there are inspirations taking place that you would never think. To have Isaac Hayes tell that story about bringing that into his music, which led him to composing the music for Shaft…. The week he died the scratch score for Shaft had finally been released on CD, which he scored for the music and which is really different from the soundtrack; it's really minimal. That finally came out and I would have loved to had the chance to talk to him about that. By the way, that version of "Walk On By" was recorded in Detroit.

Greenfield-Sanders: When somebody dies, it's always a loss but—as an artist—it's a double loss because you wonder how you would have interpreted that person; how you would have photographed him or interviewed him. That's what I feel the minute I read the paper and so-and-so's died; I feel like, "I wish I'd had my chance to shoot that person's portrait and see her or him the way I see them." I'm sure Elvis feels that way as an interviewer. It's a double loss for us.

Guillén: What is the creative impulse behind creating portraiture? Elvis achieves this through interviews; you achieve it through your photographs. I know that for myself I finally reached this odd juncture where—after years and years of writing about myself in my diaries and journals—I just became exhausted with myself. Suddenly to talk to other people and hear what they had to say became my self-fulfillment.

Mitchell: How so?

Guillén: I think it was always supposed to be about the dialogue, not the monologue. I think I was always meant to be a listener, and an eliciter, trying to pull stories out of others; to be not only a storyteller but a listener for storytellers. I was frustrated when the focus was only on myself. But how about yourself? Where does the impulse come for you to create portraits?

Mitchell: I've always been curious about how other people think. One of the great aspects of The Black List is that—as you look at these people—you wonder what's going on in their heads. Is that repose? Is that anger? Is that contemplation? What's so funny? All these questions that you have when you see a great portrait. I guess I've always thought that a great portrait makes you ask as many questions as it answers. You're left wanting to know more. I think of myself as being something of a way station.

Guillén: Yourself, Timothy?

Greenfield-Sanders: I've never really thought about it, but I've sometimes been frustrated by the limits of still photography; that when you take a portrait, how do you say more than one pose? One expression? In a way, this project is a way of doing that. It opens up my portraiture to another level.

Guillén: If film does, indeed, show thought—as has often been said—then, I have to say your film is rich with thought. When I was looking at the footage of Toni Morrison, for example, to experience her humor was delightful. I know she's a deep, beautiful writer; but, I appreciated seeing this other funny side of her. And I loved the counterpoint of Vernon Jordan wanting to date her and getting nowhere with her. I loved that quality of the portraits speaking across to each other.

Well, I think at this point I should leave you be. Thank you both so much.


Mitchell: What a pleasure to meet you.

Guillén: Absolutely. You know I spotted you across the lobby last Fall at the Toronto International Film Festival and I wanted to introduce myself.

Mitchell: Why didn't you?

Guillén: I was in a long line trying to get into a movie.

Mitchell: Oh, you're one of those! [Laughter.]

Cross-published on
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