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August 2008
An Interview with Elvis Mitchell

An Interview with Elvis Mitchell
By Wilson Morales

August 25, 2008

Having left The New York Times in 2004 after six years as one of its film critics, I wondered what fellow colleague Elvis Mitchell would do to follow that prestigious position. Well, as he continues to writes for various outlets, Mitchell has also elevated his game and started to produce some well meaningful projects such as ‘Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence’, which airs on TCM and showcases celebrities talking about the classic films that had an impact on their lives.

Coming up next for Mitchell is the documentary‘The Black List’ with celebrated portrait photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. It's a film about race, culture and the seeds of success. The film includes Toni Morrison, Colin Powell, Sean Combs, Al Sharpton, Chris Rock and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar among others, and will air on HBO on Monday August 25.

In speaking with Blackfilm.com, Mitchell speaks about this amazing documentary, getting the talent to participate and his project that airs on TCM.

Where did the idea for the documentary come from?

Elvis Mitchell: Timothy (Greenfield-Sanders) invited me to meet for lunch a couple of years ago. He wanted to do a coffee table photo book on African American life, along the lines of 'I hear a world' and 'crowns.' As we talked, I offered that we call it 'The Black List,' as a way of reclaiming that phrase. To me, so much of African American life has been about reclaiming the negative, and making it work for us; the kind of determination that has been to the success of our culture here, and it also struck me as being a transgressive thing that would make people sit up and take notice, a signal that this wasn't the usual look at black life -- a group of cool, intriguing African Americans on something called the Black List, making it a positive thing to be associated with and remove some of the stigma from it. Timothy said that it would be a great documentary, and went about finding the money to make it happen. It should be noted that this was an independently financed film that HBO bought at Sundance, and that worked out to our favor. We were able to assemble a list of people that we wanted rather than having it vetoed by others. There were a few guiding principles for me. There should be no academics or scholars commenting on the black experience; in other words, I’m the kind of person who shouldn't be in this film, and which made me decide that you wouldn't see me or hear me shouting out questions off camera. We wanted people who'd been fighting for their survival on the front lines.

What approach did you use to get the participants involved?

Elvis Mitchell: We got in touch with people both Timothy and I knew initially. The first two test subjects, Thelma Golden and Toni Morrison, were old friends of his. He’d been shooting Toni since 1980. Toni did us the enormous favor of relieving people of the necessity of making a decision; if Toni Morrison is in this thing, I guess it's ok. I knew Chris Rock, Keenen Ivory Wayans and came to the immediate realization that we had to have an opening that would make people think this was different, which is why the film starts the way it does. Some of our producers weighed in with other suggestions like Zane and Mahlon Duckett. The film had to be about the African American experience in the 21st century, and catch audiences off guard at the same time, which is why it starts the way it does.

Did everyone make the cut or were there more folks left in the editing room?

Elvis Mitchell: There were some people left out simply because Timothy thought the film had to clock in at 90 minutes, so we couldn't fit in everyone we filmed. Also, there had to be some sense of balance, which affected choices for inclusion, too. But everyone is in the book of 'The Black List,' which Atria is releasing September 16.

What challenges did you face as you started the production?

Elvis Mitchell: Each segment was both a filmed interview and a portrait sitting, so that we'd have a book ready at the end of production -- preserving the original motivation. So, that was tricky; we had to maximize the time we had with each person. Because we only had a very limited amount of money, we had to film two or three folks each time we filmed. We used a big crew, including the team with the inquisitor, the camera system that allowed us to bring Timothy's portraiture style to the film. And, frankly, it was an unusual proposition, because the project was inchoate. Attempting to explain what we wanted as it was formulating, which is why we ended up going to people we knew or who knew of us; Kareem (Abdul Jabbar) said he committed because he was familiar with me from my tenure at the New York Times.

Was there anything you wanted individuals like Toni, Keenan, or Suzan-Lori Parks to focus on when telling their story?

Elvis Mitchell: Sure. I wanted to talk to Toni about dreams which are such an integral part of African American folklore and storytelling, and their presence in so much of her work. For Kareem, as a fan, it was his connection to jazz. He struck me as the Sonny Rollins of ballers, concentration and a consistent awareness of his gifts, as well as the fact that he'd beaten my home team, the Detroit Pistons in his first pro game. Why did he have to dog my homies like that? I wanted Suzan Lori’s cognizance of black audiences, and her relationship to them. In each case, we had subjects with an understanding of the history of their field of endeavor and a sense of their own place in that continuum. That was key.

Not to pick straws, but who was the most engaging that you filmed?

Elvis Mitchell: I can't pick straws, because there are several moments in each story that surprised me. Because we were in the unique position to getting people to talk without a new project to promote, I was able to ask questions that weren't related to promotion. That was, I think, enormously liberating to them and to me. There wasn't that moment in which they'd got into a prepared rap about a new book, or an agenda, or start pushing an agenda. I hope it was freeing from their points of view, too.

Where do you go from here?

Elvis Mitchell: We're in serious talks about volume two. A funny story; the 'volume one' part only came because, as we met with HBO, there was some concern that people would object; 'Why is she on the list, and not this person?' I was ready for that argument. We couldn't possibly get all of Black America in the film? And 'The Black List' was meant to be a catalyst for conversation. Interestingly enough, there've been no confrontations. Instead, people have excitedly suggested, 'If you do a sequel, can you get this person?' It's one of the reasons there's a companion website, www.onemillionstories.com , where people can post their own ideas and HBO is sponsoring a contest. The winners will be filmed by us. But HBO was still a little anxious. 'Could be called 'The Black List: A Work in Progress'?' That would make it sound unfinished. So I said, let's call it 'The Black List, Vol. 1,' which begs the question: when is Vol. 2 coming? And I’ve done a series for TCM, 'Under the Influence,' which are interviews with filmmakers and actors talking about the movies that affected their sensibilities and approach to their work. The first four episodes ran in July, and the last four will play in November. We’ve great luck with it; the first group included Sydney Pollack, in one of his last interviews, Bill Murray, Quentin Tarantino and Laurence Fishburne. The second group has Edward Norton, John Leguizamo, Joan Allen and Richard Gere.

What's worth seeing these days in theaters?

Elvis Mitchell: As a comics fan, I loved 'Iron Man' and 'The Dark Knight,' films from filmmakers who know and respect the comics but who also brought something else to the material. 'Trouble the Waters,' a great documentary I saw at Sundance, is worth seeing. And there's a tremendous film on the horizon called 'Ballast,' which is a powerful and artful look at black life.

If you had to review this film, what would you say to those who are interested in watching it and those who may not know about it?

Elvis Mitchell: That's a funny question, because I never thought of it in terms of reviews. I always thought, though I’m a film critic I’m also a black audience member and I know what I’ve rarely seen: a documentary on black American life that doesn't sentimentalize achievement. So many docs on our people focus on suffering and victims. I wanted to see something else, which is what I’d say to those who don't know about it. I have to say that HBO's documentary unit, and God bless Sheila Nevins and Lisa Heller, has been spectacular about getting the word out and supporting it. It’s the place to be, and we couldn't be happier.

THE BLACK LIST: VOL. 1 debuts MONDAY, AUG. 25 (9:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO. Check www.hbo.com for other playdates.

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