You may not have heard of the name Clarence Avant, but you’ve definitely heard of the people whose lives he’s changed and whose careers he’s launched. Known as the Black Godfather — from which the Netflix documentary about him takes its name — the 89-year-old is a legendary behind-the-scenes kingmaker who quietly brokered deals for and advised luminaries across entertainment, sports, politics and finance, taking on a mythic quality for those in the know.
“I heard about Clarence from the beginning of my professional career. I was doing music videos … and we were dealing with the record label and they said, ‘Yeah, but we also gotta talk to Clarence.’ And I was like, ‘OK, Clarence,’” Reginald Hudlin, who directed “The Black Godfather,” told Gold Derby during our Meet the Experts: Documentary panel (watch above). “And he was kind of referred to the same way you’d talk about Zeus.”
An Oscar nominee for “Django Unchained” (2012) and an Emmy nominee for producing the 88th Academy Awards, Hudlin eventually met Avant when he flew to L.A. to discuss a possible film starring Janet Jackson. “I got to know the man and I got to know others whose careers were due to him and I just realized how important he was,” he said. Avant’s daughter, Nicole Avant, who was the U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas from 2009-11, had wanted to tell her father’s life story since she was 8, suggesting a book, but Avant, who got his start in music, always dismissed the idea. That is until, Nicole pitched a documentary, after which Avant handpicked “Reggie” to direct it. “It was like drop everything and make the Clarence Avant movie, which was a dream come true,” Hudlin stated.
As Hudlin started doing interviews with high-profile figures from all walks of life and different fields, including Quincy Jones, Hank Aaron and Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, he started to realize that Avant’s incalculable influence and reach were greater than he even imagined. “We found that every time we interviewed someone, they would say three new names. ‘You know who you need to talk to?’ And the three names would have nothing to do with each other and seemingly nothing to do with Clarence. And I’d ask, ‘Why do I need to talk to them?’ ‘Just do it!’ ‘OK!’” he recalled. “It was like Russian [nesting dolls]. Each door opens another door opens another door. So you’re talking to Jim Brown and you’re talking to Bill Clinton and you’re talking to Snoop. And they all love Clarence. Clarence has made a difference in everyone’s lives.”
And the reason Clarence Avant has not been a household name is because this unsung hero wanted to be unsung — he didn’t even charge people for his services. “He’s so perfect for Hollywood because he doesn’t want fame. So everyone who wants fame feels comfortable working with him because it’s like, ‘Well, he’s not trying to get his shot. I want my shot!’” Hudlin declared. “He’s the guy who just wants things done. His disposition was perfect for his goal.”
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