For decades, the world’s highest-profile entertainers, athletes and politicians have turned to a single man for advice during the most pivotal moments in their lives and careers. Clarence Avant has advised Grammy Award winners, Hall of Famers, a Heavyweight Champion of the World and two U.S. Presidents — and yet the music industry veteran remains virtually unknown. Reginald Hudlin’s new Netflix documentary “The Black Godfather” looks to change that.
“Here’s a guy who is involved in everything you know and don’t know, that you love or care about, from the music you listen to, to politicians you’re voting for, and athletes you cheer, but you really don’t know who he is,” Hudlin said.
Hudlin has known the “Godfather” for most of his professional life, and, after previous attempts to get him to tell his story, finally convinced the 88-year-old music executive to come out of the shadows.
“Many people in his life tried to talk him into writing a book to tell his story, but he always rejected the idea for years,” Hudlin said. “And then Nicole, his daughter, came up with the brilliant idea that, instead of a book, maybe it’s a documentary. And he was more open to that, because he’s not a guy who likes to brag about himself, but he could handle other people doing bragging about him.”
Hudlin, the former president of BET and a filmmaker best known for “Boomerang,” had known the Avant family for years. That made him ideally situated to sort through Avant’s legacy.
“Clarence rejected the idea that fame and power went hand in hand,” Hudlin said. “People who’ve watched the film would tell me how embarrassed they are for not knowing who he was. Well, he didn’t want you to know him. It really comes down to that old KRS One line, ‘real bad boys move in silence’. That was Clarence Avant.”
“The Black Godfather” charts Avant’s unlikely rise, as he became a music pioneer whose trailblazing behind-the-scenes accomplishments impacted the legacies of icons such as as Bill Withers, Quincy Jones, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, and Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Memorable chapters include how Avant stopped ABC from launching Dick Clark’s would-be rival to Don Cornelius’ popular “Soul Train” franchise. He mentored the hit-making songwriting duo Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, as well as Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, and Sony/ATV chairman/CEO Jon Platt (who named one of his twin sons after Avant). And while multiple Grammy winner Bill Withers was still struggling as an airplane assembly worker by day, Avant — as then owner of Sussex Records — was an early champion of his music. He signed Withers to a record deal and produced his first album.
Avant left the Jim Crow south behind to emerge as a powerhouse negotiator at a time when deep-seated racism penetrated every corner of America. As the documentary shows, Avant defied notions of what a black executive could do, redefining the industry for entertainers and executives of color. Notably, Avant signed white guitarist Dennis Coffey to his Sussex label in the early 1970s, and managed Argentine pianist-composer Lalo Schifrin, who wanted to establish himself as a film composer. Schifrin would go on to create the theme music for “Mission: Impossible.”
Additionally, Avant had no qualms about walking into the offices of powerful white men – including Hollywood studio and record label executives – and offering advice, even when unsolicited.
Hudlin counted himself among the people impacted by Hudlin’s career. “Being around Clarence, it’s hard not to be infected by his spirit, and figure out how to apply how he moves around the world to your own life,” Hudlin said. “I’ve met people who’ve watched the film who have said, ‘Wow, I need to reassess how I’m living my own life, or I’ve got to work harder, be more generous,’ et cetera.”
Hudlin interviewed roughly 75 people for the film, over a three-year period, including two former presidents, but there was third that he said he wished he’d been able to access — Jimmy Carter. “At the time that we were shooting, he had that brief cancer scare, and I was so disappointed that we couldn’t speak with him,” said Hudlin. “The candid and penetrating thoughts provided by both presidents Obama and Clinton were wonderful and added a certain amount of gravitas to the film. They grasp the man and his place in the history books, and were very forthcoming about his impact on them.”
And now that Avant’s impact has been revealed, Hudlin said he expect that there would be more interest in documenting his fascinating life, whether as a scripted series, film, or novel. “I really hope this is not the end of the Clarence Avant story,” he said. “He’s now officially a part of black history, we could say. He’s now on-the-record as being part of American history. We can no longer say that we don’t know about him.”
“The Black Godfather” is now streaming on Netflix.