‘The Black Godfather’ documentary explores Clarence Avant and the ruling class use of black pop culture | Think Piece

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Clarence Avant mastered pimping out Black identity to normalize the functioning of a nation premised on the oppression of his fellow Black citizens.

A Netflix documentary recently premiered about a man unknown to many, but who wielded inordinate influence in the music, entertainment, and film industry relative to his humble, Climax, North Carolina beginnings. Sometimes called, “The Black Godfather ,” which is also the title of the film,  the career of industry insider, Clarence Avant, shows how he  was a crucial asset to the ruling class in neutralizing the radical politics of the late 1960s.  

Clarence Avant talks in documentary about his life.

According to the documentary, during a time when over 70 percent of Black entertainers were directly controlled by organized crime figures, Avant was recognized for his ability to play hardball with Black talent. In his role, he  was able to keep Black performers in line for the benefit of the White “Goodfellas” who had a stronghold on the entertainment industry. 

Early in his career, Avant was recruited by Joe Glaser, the famed manager of Louis Armstrong who was also mob-connected.  Glaser recognized Avant’s potential skill as a kind of “Black Overseer” who extracted  the highest value for their syndicate paymasters. 

Avant, having only a ninth grade education, an unimpressive stature, and no remote level of verbal dexterity or eloquence, parlayed his early role as the “Black Overseer” into becoming “The Black Godfather.” He wielded so much power that even White media and entertainment corporate executives known for showing Blacks little regard or respect, surrendered to Avant’s demands, and even sometimes, to their own economic disadvantage.

 Avant’s power and influence grew to penetrate every echelon of American entertainment media. He interfaced with almost every influential Black entertainer from 1950’s Jazz singers to late 20th century hip hop superstars. Ironically, the documentary reveals that some of his long list of admirers, from giants like Quincy Jones to politicians like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, had no idea what Avant actually did. What is obvious from the documentary, the power of Avant did not lie in his mere persona, but stemmed from the forces that he worked for behind the scenes that held so much weight in the American culture industry. 

What makes Avant such an important person is that he was the key figure assisting in depicting Black popular culture as the embodiment of the American dream. For over a 50-year- period, this was done to the benefit of the American ruling class during a time when Black life was becoming more politically and economically precarious. Though the Black Middle class has grown since Jim Crow, Black home ownership and unemployment are now at the level they were in 1968. Under the presidential management of Barack Obama, who states in the documentary that, “Clarence Avant is one of my favorite people,” 50 percent of Black wealth evaporated in the subprime mortgage crisis with no remedy from the first Black president. 

In the film, Avant prides himself on having a role in the political elevation of every Democratic Party president this country has seen in the post Civil Rights era. He states in the documentary, “I believe in politics.” Early in the documentary he says, The only thing that matters to me is numbers.” Meaning, money is his primary motivation.

It is amazing to watch Clinton wax on about the power and importance of Avant who was an early contributor to Clinton’s 1992 presidential  campaign. Avant’s efforts raised over one million dollars for Clinton. Ironically, Clinton went on to implement one of the most draconian crime bills in American history while overseeing the incarceration of more Blacks than all three prior presidents combined. Evidently, Avant’s political activism illustrates a very important fact to students of Black politics: The Black Misleadership Class clearly has a division in the entertainment industry. 

Not only does this documentary act as a hagiography of Avant, but it also functions as a kind of visual celebration of Black fealty to the Democratic party in the post Civil Rights era. In the film, corporate, Trojan Horse Black politicians like Harold Ford, Jr. and even Senator Kamala Harris sing Avant’s praises throughout the documentary.

LOS ANGELES, California. June 04, 2019: (From left to right) Jacqueline Avant, Billye Aaron, Hank Aaron, Ted Sarandos, Nicole Avant & Clarence Avant at the premiere for “The Black Godfather” on Netflix. Picture. Photo credit: Paul Smith/Featureflash

Pimping out Black identity and a movement

Many are unfamiliar with how Black America transitioned from those contentious political times in the late 1960s. During this period, Black movement figures from Dr. Martin Luther King to the Black Panther Party were decrying the crimes of American capitalism and imperialism at home and abroad. Some would believe that “law and order” simply descended upon the land under President Richard Nixon.

The Watts rebellion 1965 started with a traffic stop where a white officer shot a Black man rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital.

What most forget is that from1967 to 1971, 300 urban rebellions reduced sections of American cities to smoldering embers. From these civil unrests, the US ruling class feared the nation was besieged by a Black revolution. So much so, the magnitude of the revolts led Lyndon B. Johnson to believe the Soviet Union was helping coordinate it.

This apprehension was so palpable that Johnson authorized a commission to study the causes of the urban rebellions. One of the things most fascinating about the 1968 Kerner Commission Report is the section on using Blacks in media and popular culture to neutralize the radical fervor that was causing Blacks to not only challenge the American status quo, but exhibit willingness to burn the whole system to the ground.

From the 1968, Kerner Commission Report: The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, requested by Johnson to diagnose the causes of the Urban Rebellions of that period and neutralize further occurrence of such rebellions. An excerpt from the report says the following:

The Negro in Media

Finally the news media must publish newspapers and produce programs that recognize the existence and activities of the Negro both as a Negro and as a part of the community. It would be a contribution of inestimable importance to race relations in the United States simply to treat ordinary news about Negroes as news of other groups is now treated.

Specifically, newspapers should integrate Negroes and Negro activities in all parts of the paper, from the news, society, and club pages to the comic strips. Television should develop programming which integrates Negroes into all aspects of televised presentations. Television Is such a visible medium that some constructive steps are easy and obvious. While some of these steps are being taken, they are still largely neglected. For example, Negro reporters and performers should appear more frequently–and at prime time in news broadcasts, on weather shows, in documentaries, and in advertisements. Some effort has already been made to use Negroes in television commercials. Any initial surprise at seeing a Negro selling a sponsor’s product will eventually fade into routine acceptance, an attitude that White society must ultimately develop toward all Negroes.

In addition to news-related programming, we think that Negroes should appear more frequently in dramatic and comedy series. Moreover, networks and local stations should present plays and other programs whose subjects are rooted in the ghetto and its problems.

In the context of the section above, one understands how after 300 urban rebellions, TV programs ranging from “Soul Train” to “Good Times” became important showcased spectacles of Black life and popular culture. Hence, the significance of a Clarence Avant, who mastered pimping out Black identity to normalize the functioning of a nation premised on the oppression of his fellow Black citizens.

Furthermore, the proliferation and hyper-capitalization of Black popular cultural production in the post Civil Rights era also must be thoroughly scrutinized in this context. With the expansion of Black images from streaming services to sports figures, the seduction of Black popular culture and its value as a vehicle of pacification and social control in periods of political contention becomes more obvious.

With the rise of White reactionary nationalism all over the globe coupled with retreats on the gains of the Civil Rights Era from voter suppression to Black wealth evisceration, it is time that people view figures like Avant and the overall Black media and entertainment establishment with not only suspicion, but as accessories to the crime of American racial hostility.  

Is it accidental that Citibank’s favorite president, Barack Obama and his wife have now ventured into the culture industry to produce programming for Netflix ? Are people foolish enough to believe this is all just “entertainment,” for fun and enjoyment with no political or social agenda? 

When considering where this obsession with popular culture has taken the most disadvantaged among Americans, it is clear that the Kerner Commission’s formula for political pacification was rather effective. The Clarence Avant’s of the world can continue to laugh their way to the bank. 

At the start of his career, Avant operates as a tool of organized crime. Yet, he is able to rise to such a level in the American capitalist system that he becomes an emissary of the Democratic Party, working to ensure its political success by leveraging Black entertainment. 

Settling into his role, Avant becomes a kind of “fixer,” acting as an intermediary between Black entertainers and the capitalist culture industry, as well as the American political system. Concurrently, he secures the expansion of the Black capitalist class in the entertainment industry, while the hard realities of Black life are masked behind the bright lights and sweet music. 

Therefore, the most important lesson from the documentary, “The Black Godfather,” is that agents of Black subjugation don’t have to be as vulgar and crass as a Bull Conner or Donald Trump. Sometimes those agents can be heralded as models of Black success while fulfilling their roles as the comprador elite helping to suck the life out of innocent poor and working class Black folk. In Clarence Avant’s case, at least it was done to a backbeat you could dance to. Aren’t we happy such a man provides a role model to emulate?

Pascal Robert, Esq., is an iconoclast, lawyer, activist for Haiti and writer at Black Agenda Report, who challenges the forces of oppression regularly.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you Pascal for your penetrating and disturbing expose. Surely our responsibility as ‘awake’ or is it ‘woke’ citizens remains to stay vigilant, active and as you are doing, spreading the word.

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