When Netflix released the documentary The Black Godfather almost exactly a year ago, it introduced audiences to Clarence Avant, an African-American entertainment industry insider, dealmaker and mentor who has quietly played an extraordinary role in the lives of leading entertainers, athletes, executives and politicians. Now, a year later, with the country in the throes of a seismic examination of institutionalized racism, the film feels more timely than ever.
In his own way and out of public view, Avant for decades has fought to create opportunity for African-Americans through bold stratagems and sheer force of will.
“He knew his purpose, head on, was black people are going to move forward,” his daughter Nicole Avant explains in The Black Godfather. She says it’s as if her father took stock of his gifts and business clout one day and decided, “I’m going to use it for good and I’m going to lift up my people and I’m going to use it to push down barriers and…open doors and I’m going to use it for the right thing. I’m going to use it for justice.”
Nicole Avant produced and Reginald Hudlin directed the film that is now in contention for Emmy nominations. In the documentary, an incredible array of luminaries testify to the ways Clarence dramatically impacted their fortunes, becoming, in effect, their godfather. In the 1960s, for instance, Avant orchestrated NFL great Jim Brown’s audacious transition from football to movie stardom.
“I did not know the Jim Brown story,” Nicole Avant said last October at a Netflix documentary showcase. “My dad said he knew him and helped him with something and then I see the footage. ‘Helped him with something? You created a whole career for this person!’ And helped change civil rights in this country based on [Brown] trying to get into Hollywood and get into these films.”
When Hank Aaron was bearing down on Babe Ruth’s Major League home run record in 1974, Avant volunteered to help the Atlanta Braves slugger land endorsement deals and business opportunities. One of them was with Coca-Cola, a deal Avant brokered when he met with Coke’s president and forcefully told him he ought to be in business with Hammerin’ Hank.
“Clarence has meant everything to me,” Aaron told Deadline last June at the premiere of The Black Godfather in Hollywood. “I am who I am because of who Clarence Avant is.”
One of Avant’s greatest areas of influence has been in the record business. He provided important career guidance to the likes of Grammy-winning producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Sean Combs and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. In 1969 Avant founded Sussex Records (the label’s name was a hybrid of the words “success” and “sex”) and took a chance on signing Bill Withers, a former airplane mechanic with dreams of becoming a singer-songwriter. Withers went on to one of the greatest careers in music history, recording “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine” and other classics (he died in March at age 81).
The film also recounts how Avant went up against Dick Clark back in the day after the American Bandstand producer tried to launch a Black music-oriented show to rival Soul Train. Avant managed to convince ABC not to back Clark’s venture, averting doom for Soul Train which—unlike Clark’s project—was an authentically Black-owned and Black-run show.
Avant lent his support not only to African-American talent but to people of other races. He signed numerous white and Latino artists to his labels, including Rodriguez (subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man). In the realm of politics, he went from helping Andrew Young win his first campaign for Congress to getting behind Jimmy Carter’s 1976 run for president. Presidents Clinton and Obama appear in the film, praising Avant’s political acumen and his role in getting them to the White House.
“I decided to mix it up like a scrambled egg and get involved,” Avant says of his interest in politics and political talent. “You can’t just go one way, one color. You have to look at the whole system, and I look at the whole spectrum of this country.”
Avant achieved all he has despite having just a 9th grade education. He grew up in rural North Carolina in the time of Jim Crow segregation when Black people were not only denied opportunity but routinely subjected to brutal violence by whites.
“That was terrorism every day, different forms of terrorism,” Nicole Avant observes. “I think my father worked through a lot of his trauma…through giving to so many people. I think it helped him work through seeing his friends killed for being Black…He didn’t see a therapist. He didn’t ‘talk it through,’ so I think by making dreams for other people come true and giving back and trying to do something with such negativity, that was his healing.”
Avant could have amassed a great fortune as others in similar positions have. But that apparently was not his prime objective. The film describes instance after instance where he freely shared his advice and time with others, but never asked for compensation.
“I don’t know how he made a living,” entertainment mogul David Geffen marvels in the documentary. “He never seemed to charge anybody.”
Avant evinces a crusty exterior, but The Black Godfather exposes the secret that he’s actually got “one of the biggest hearts in the universe,” as his biographer puts it. Hudlin, the director, would agree.
“Clarence is an inspiration to a whole generation because he’s a guy who’s always fighting for what’s right,” Hudlin tells Deadline. “He’s certainly fighting for Black people, but he’s fighting for justice for everybody.”
Nicole Avant (who is married to Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos) says she had been hoping for years to make a documentary about her dad. He turned 89 in February.
“It’s been a very long time in this brain of mine and floating around with different ideas,” Nicole says of The Black Godfather. “I’m happy that it’s all come together…He’s coherent, and can understand what’s going on, and that’s the most important thing, is to celebrate him while he’s here.”