Filmmaker and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders wanted to create a book about the black experience, but he wasn't sure exactly what he wanted to do or how to do it. During a lunch meeting with friend and writer Elvis Mitchell, the two created a list of successful black Americans on napkins and called it "The Black List." The napkin list evolved into both a book and an HBO documentary, which features interviews with prominent African-Americans talking about their life experiences. Gayle talks with Timothy and Elvis about The Black List: Volume One and its stars.
Elvis says part of the reason he wanted to participate in the project was to counter negativity. "As a black person, you hear the derogatory use of the word black all of the time," he says. "I thought, 'This is the 21st century; black culture has been so much and so often about reclaiming the negative and putting another spin on it. Let's do that with [the term] black list and make it a list that people would want to be on."
For the documentary, Timothy filmed famous black Americans—including Colin Powell, Chris Rock, Toni Morrison, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Al Sharpton and more—using a technique similar to his portraiture style: focusing directly on the subject. Elvis says that this isn't your typical documentary. "What you see in documentaries, in general, is this: you're told what you're going to see, you see it and somebody tells you what you've just seen. None of that happens here," Elvis says. "You have to be pulled into the stories of the people communicating their lives to you. I want this to contradict what we've been told we have to see in documentaries."