Nicole Avant | The Black Godfather | The Backlot Podcast

Tova: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter moderator and director of the New York Film Academy Guest Lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about her experience in the entertainment industry. And now Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you producer Nicole Avant and her Netflix documentary, The Black Godfather. We recommend you watch it before listening. But you know, that’s up to you. So who is The Black Godfather a.k.a. Miss Avant’s dad, Clarence Avant? For one, he was a powerful music executive who helped usher in the careers of countless musicians, including the recently deceased Bill Withers.

[Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine]

Eric Conner: But his career went beyond music. He was an influencer and a tastemaker. In the 1970s, he ensured that homerun king Hank Aaron would be the face of Coca-Cola. More recently, he was a major player in introducing the country to Barack Obama. And without him, the universe might never have gotten this memorable theme. At an early age, Nicole Avant got to see firsthand just how powerful her dad really was.

Nicole Avant: I think it was oh, I definitely know for sure it was with Hank Aaron, probably one of the first times that I noticed because we got special seats at Dodger Stadium. And even though Hank wasn’t from here, that’s the one way he was – wanted to do something for our family. But I remember Hank was very open. He’s really the one who gave me the inspiration to make the movie because Hank was the most open and honest about how my father’s actions changed his life and he made such a big deal out of it. And then because of that, I would ask, like I knew he broke Babe Ruth’s record, but that’s all I knew. Then he gave me the backstory of how hard it was personally, like he couldn’t enjoy it, like he said in the film, you couldn’t even enjoy it because of all the death threats and fearing for his children’s lives.

And so I think between that and then seeing my dad on Soul Train, which by the way, that clip that we found, my parents told me I was crazy, told me it didn’t exist. Everybody told me it didn’t exist. And my mom said, you must have dreamt that. He was never on Soul Train. Why would he be? My dad said I was never on Soul Train. I’m telling you, I remember. I was young and I was watching the TV. And I remember it was a big deal because he was on television. I didn’t know why my father was on television. So I was so happy that we found that footage because they kept fighting me on it. But I think those two things and then as I got older, it was getting into concerts and getting in backstage. There was like a Bobby Brown new addition, some Al B. Sure, something. They were all together. And I remember we couldn’t get backstage and we were, we didn’t have enough passes or we didn’t have the right passes or something. I said, oh, darn it. And I was walking away and someone said, Avant, come this way. And then some security guard walks up to me and goes, are you related to Clarence? And I said, maybe, yes, because I don’t know why he was asking. And all of a sudden he just opened. He’s like, come on, come. How many friends do you have? And I go, this is amazing. This is fantastic. So it kind of happened throughout. But I remember the first time was really Soul Train and then Hank Aaron and Andy Young telling me their stories.

Eric Conner: In case that story doesn’t make it clear, Clarence Avant is truly a larger than life figure who’s stories almost sound like myths. And who better to produce a documentary worthy of the man than his own daughter? And that’s thanks largely to the lessons he bestowed upon her at an early age.

Nicole Avant: My parents made me do every kind of job all my life. They had me started working like when I was 10 answering phones at this record company or working at a boutique. I sold shoes. I was a waitress. I did all that. And then one time my father said, I wanted to be in the record business. I want to follow my dad and that. And I ended up doing that. But I was in college and he said, I got you a job. I got you an internship at Warner Brothers Television. I don’t want to go to Warner Brothers television. I don’t even want to do that. He said, but you should learn the business. You should learn different types of business because all of entertainment is one business. So you should learn like all the facets. So I went there and I have to say I loved it. And I learned everything. You know, I copied scripts, you know, for one week and then I drove around and was a gopher the next week. And then I was in the legal department. I went to all the different departments and met different people. And it kind of helps you understand the business. I still didn’t really necessarily want to. I always want to make documentary films. I loved those films when I was growing up. I loved that it taught me everything. And then as I got older, I thought, well, maybe there’s some way you can make a film that’s, that’s a documentary, but a little more of the entertainment business in it to make it cooler and make people sit through it. Or they’d want to sit through it. And so I started there. My claim to fame during my internship, by the way, was meeting. I had, it was my last week. And there is a show called Head of the Class. And this is in the 80s. You guys were probably not even born. But they said to me the last week, you have a guest star. And I said, what do I do? And they said, you just go to the trailer, make sure he shows up on set on time, make sure he has a script. Blah, blah, blah. And I went and I walked up with my clipboard and I knocked on his trailer and I said, Hi, Brad. And he walked out. He said, yes. And I said, Brad Pitt. And he said, yes. And I said, Hi, I’m Nicole Avant. I’m your gopher. And he, and it’s so crazy that I’m watching him at the Oscars this week. And what I loved about him was that he was so excited to be an actor. He was so excited to be where he was in that moment. Like, can you believe we’re on this lot? Can you believe we’re here? Isn’t this so great? But I remember that. And that was a long – that was 1988 I think. So that’s how I, I kind of did every job but I fell into entertainment through that internship that I fought my dad on. Of just saying, I want to do what I want to do this summer. And he’s, of course, was like, well, you’re on my payroll, so you’re going to do what I say, which he’s right, because now I say the same thing to my kids.

Eric Conner: Working these jobs taught Miss Avant how to conduct herself in the entertainment industry.

Nicole Avant: I used to follow the head of legal department out of all things, but it was the way he behaved that I studied. I noticed that he spoke to everybody, no matter who it was, he spoke to everybody, meaning not just trying to start a conversation, but he was respectful to everybody. So if it was the janitor and we walked into the building. He knew the janitor’s name. He said, hello. How’s your family? Wherever. We go all the way up to the president’s office, he’d speak to that person the same way. And I noticed that he Taught me, basically, you need to live the golden rule in your life as much as you can. You’re gonna mess up. And we all do. We all don’t pay attention to things that we should. But what I loved about him is that through his actions, he spoke to me instead of sitting down and saying, here’s my advice for you to go through life. He showed me really how to go through life. And he really did practice that every day, even if he was in a bad mood or what have you. It was very important to him to show people that they are valuable by giving them respect. And what I learned from him was that respect is the highest form of love. So when people say just love everybody, I think really it’s respect everybody, because then everybody’s kind of, you know, as much as you can. But that’s what I learned from him. And I and I’ve tried to take it into every area of my life. And I notice when I don’t do it and how it makes me feel. So that’s what I would say was the best advice shown to me.

Eric Conner: Miss Avant grew up with an amazing role model and her father. So it’s not too surprising that she initially worked in the music industry. But like her dad, she wasn’t content staying in one lane for too long.

Nicole Avant: I thought I was going to stay in the record business all my life. I loved it and I loved the challenges and I loved the different facets of it. I love working in different departments. I had a great time. But then as different opportunities showed up, I just thought, you know, I’m so curious about things that I just kind of went that way. But I think it’s your personality and I think you need to do what you really, whatever you’re really good at is usually a sign of that’s what you should be doing. It doesn’t mean you can’t do other things, like if you do comedy all your life. I mean, if you wanted to do comedy, but you still love dancing, it doesn’t mean you can’t take a class, you know? It doesn’t mean that you have to be a professional at all these different things, but focus on really what you love and what you want to give your time to, I think is the most important thing. And usually you know what you love by what you’re really good at, whatever you’re really good at. That’s why it’s a gift. Like you just have it. But you have to, at some point in your life, you’re going to have to figure out what’s your hobby vs. what your talent is and where you want to go. And you’ll, you’ll figure that out. You’re young, you have time. But I would try everything for sure. But I wouldn’t stay in something if you just kind of like, I’m just going to stay in this and I’m not really sure and you just kind of hang out there without it being your passion. Because a lot of people say follow your passion. But I always say you need to follow what you’re really good at. You really do. I mean, if I followed my passion, I, you know. God knows. I don’t think I’d be sitting here. But I think it depends on your personality. But I think why not? When you’re young, this is the time to try as many things as possible, to see where you feel comfortable, where you feel that you could be as productive as you can.

Eric Conner: Her passion has taken her far and wide, from powerful music exec, to acting in Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, to serving as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas. And through all of this, she had her sights set on one important project.

Nicole Avant: This documentary happened because I was trying to figure out a way to tell my dad’s story, at least just document it like as a tribute reel, kind of just for my family and for, you know, just passing it along. And then I thought, no. And then we were gonna write a book. And then the more and more time I spent with my father, I thought, he’s such a character. He’s so crazy. I mean, who would even believe this in a book? No one’s gonna believe any of this. No one’s going to believe the stories. No one’s going to believe his personality. And then, I said something to my husband one day, I said, I wish there was something where I could tie in sports and movies and television and activism and civil rights and all these things. He said, you’ve lived with the guy for 18 years. He’s right under your roof. You don’t even see that the character, your main person is right there. And then that’s how it happened.

And I knew Reggie Hudlin for a very long time and we’d been really good friends and we’d always sit in a corner at a party and talk about African-American history and get frustrated that no one really understood our history. And no one had seen documentaries on us or knew enough. You know, there was always like African-Americans, all black people in America are, live this way and eat this food or only do these things. And it would just drive me nuts. And Reggie was the same. And I figured he’d be a great person to direct because my father would give him more because my dad’s not very, what’s the right word? He’s just not very open.

Eric Conner: Reggie is Reginald Hudlin, the Oscar nominated producer of Django Unchained and director of Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang. Despite her connections to the subject, it still took a lot of hands on deck behind the scenes to make The Black Godfather.

Nicole Avant: Kate had worked on a few other films, and since this is my first one, she knew how to get everybody in the room and set everything up. So it’s, you know, it’s like kind of the end of the movie. You see all the credits and everyone has a gift to bring to the film. And I think that’s true in every area of life. Like, everybody has a gift that they bring, that they have, that somebody else doesn’t have. And it doesn’t mean that it’s less or better than someone else. But people always say, oh my God, you did all these things. I really have like two things that I can do in life, you know. And I I just use those things all the time. But I’m not great at a lot of things. I’m really not. And some people and I want to find people who. Oh, my God. You’re fantastic at that. You’re great at this. You can make me look great. I mean, if without the editors. Jeez, I mean, what would you do without an editor. I cried so many times during this film. I would just take all the notes. Like could you make a film out of this? Possibly. Could you make any of this make sense? Because none of this is making sense. And as soon as you know, Will would work with me every other day, every week, and all of a sudden it started coming. You know, all of a sudden his gifts started allowing. And then once it started, then I would come up with more ideas.

Eric Conner: If one thing made this project complicated and trust me, there was more than one. It was the challenge of fitting all of Clarence Avant into one documentary and the lack of script might not have helped.

Nicole Avant: In hindsight, if I could do it over, the one thing I would do is have a script. I wish I would have had something written out, some kind of storyline that we could follow. I think a lot of my frustration was, where the hell are we going with this? What – are we start? – We had so many openings, so many, because we didn’t have a script. You got to know where you’re going. And I think that’s what scripts kind of, you can always change them, but it’s really nice to start somewhere and kind of know like you – I like – I like connecting the dots and everything. But it was basically most of the interviews. And then because we didn’t have a script, we didn’t know we had 20 different stories to tell. So it kind of finally fell in to him being the change in so many people’s lives and being the important change. And so then we started taking different interviews out. So we had to get very, very specific. So it took a little longer than we wanted. It was almost three years.

Eric Conner: When you watch the documentary, one ongoing theme is how Clarence Avant’s real push wasn’t just about inclusivity. It was about putting African-American entertainers in the driver’s seats of their own careers.

Nicole Avant: I think the biggest changes and the most important changes were putting people in a position of power that they can therefore make decisions and control their destiny and then open the door for other people to come in. I mean, there used to be you know, when I was growing up, it used to be like Billboard used to have the top 100 songs, you know, black artists. It was the black charts and then the world charts. And they used to separate them all. I mean, I’m not kidding. It wasn’t that long ago. I mean, it was still just the black chart. And it was really important for my dad to say, listen, why can’t black people be in charge and women be in charge of certain departments that are only run by, you know, one type of person? But it should be everybody. And by the way, not just for black, – like in the film – you know, my dad managed Lalo Schifrin. Well, Lalo Schifrin’s not black, obviously. And my dad, I loved his question and I love the answer he got back was, what am I going to do with a white composer? Well, the same thing you do with a black composer. Like it’s, you know. And that’s what my dad was fighting is, why aren’t there black executives working on R&B music as well as black executives working in rock n roll? Because everybody else is doing both. So I think that’s the most important thing, that things started to change in the record business. And you started to see more people of color in general, really having high level positions that they otherwise would have never had.

Eric Conner: It’s clear in the doc that Clarence Avant would not back down from what he believed in. And that might be what impresses Miss Avant most about her father. He’s brave.

Nicole Avant: He’s really brave. I think bravery, by the way, is just missing in general. I really do. I mean, just, you know, being courageous doesn’t mean that you’re never afraid. It’s just you do it afraid. That’s just it. I have to tell myself all the time. I’m still afraid. I’m afraid of lots of things. But then I just have to then convince myself. Nicole, you’re going to do it afraid. And I think my father was very lucky that he knew his purpose early on, which is a difference. You know, a lot of people don’t. But he got that lane right where he figured like it’s almost like he won like the golden ticket, you know, and he realize, oh, my God, no one else has this ticket. And with this ticket, I can open lots of doors for other people that otherwise would just be standing there. I like to say that he made it possible, you know how people always say, like, run your race, run your race. I think my dad’s gift was that he allowed people to get on their mark. Because you have to get on your mark before you could run your race. And I think a lot of people have been denied throughout history, white and black. And every religion and both genders, everybody has at some point been denied stepping up to their mark. And I think that’s what’s important right now to all men is show up and just get on your mark and then go. And you know what? And then sometimes you’re going to run or you’re going to fall and sometimes you’re gonna have to pick yourself up. And sometimes it’s not going to work out the way you thought. And sometimes you’re going to continuously do the right thing and the wrong thing is going to happen. But the beauty about life, I think, is that you get to start over every single day. And life really is an arena. And that’s the one thing I learned from my dad, because I used to get mad at him when I was younger, because I used to think that he’d never gave me a break. If I complained about anything or I was sad about something, he’s like, you got to get back in the arena. You’ve got to get back in the game, Nicole. You’ve got to get back in the game. And what I’ve taken from that is it’s true. But sometimes you have to pause. But you still have to get back. And so you have to be brave to get, because life is just tough. And it’s beautiful for sure. But it’s still tough. It’s tough and beautiful. And you have to make the most of it. I think without bravery, I think you’re kind of dead in the water.

Eric Conner: Though Miss Avant cautions that her dad’s personality might not exactly be the model for everyone to emulate.

Nicole Avant: I would be a little more polished than my father. He definitely rubbed people the wrong way for sure, because it’s a very big personality. It’s a lot. He’s just a lot. And it’s great in certain areas. That’s why it was perfect for what he did. It was perfect. But he couldn’t take that personality everywhere, you know. So even he was not like that. When he used to come to my parent teacher meetings, he was like a little fly on the wall, you know. He’d say, hi, are you all right? You know, like I’m Mr. Avant, but quite a different person. You’d be surprised at dinner parties. He doesn’t talk. He’s very awkward. He’s socially awkward. So this whole big persona is only in his lane. Outside of his lane, he’s quiet and shy and. But I I think that as an actor, I think you you study human behavior. And I think just read the room and you’ll know. And sometimes it’ll call for you to be like, oh, you know what? Screw it. I’m just going to walk up to this person and say something. And then other times you have to really know. No, I’m not going to I’m not going to do that. You know, I think a lot of acting teachers now tell people, just write to the producers home, send your headshots and send it to their house and be bold. Don’t do that. No, I really don’t. Because, you know what? Guess where it goes. Right in the trash. That’s just the truth. And the only because it gets like, there’s an office. Like there has to be some level of professionalism and some level of boundaries. Otherwise, people don’t take it seriously or they think of you in a different way where you definitely don’t want that, where you’re thinking, I’m going to be bold and different and cool. And then someone else is thinking, oh, my God, this person is not even respecting my boundaries. So when people go to work, they want to work. And when they come home, sometimes they don’t. It just never lands right. I’ve never seen it. I know everyone tells people that because I used to be in acting classes, these to say, oh, go do this. And I just thought, oh, I know better. No, no, no, I’m not gonna I’m not I’m not going to do this. So I think it just is, is whatever you feel in the moment. But especially because you are an actor and you could kind of read people in a different way. I think you’ll know. But I wouldn’t go, I wouldn’t go outside of who you are, you know, if it’s your personality. That’s one thing. But I wouldn’t, you seem to have a very nice open personality. You don’t have to do much. And you have a great smile. You should do that for sure. That just opened up. I mean that’s a big door opener right there. Walking in with a very positive attitude and a smile changes everything. It’s really a really great calling card for anything, by the way.

Eric Conner: His bravery and determination is what makes Clarence Avant such an inspirational character and why Nicole Avant was so excited about how far this documentary could reach.

Nicole Avant: I would’ve told the story if it was about any of your dads, by the way. It had nothing. I mean, he just happened to be my dad, but I just thought it was such a good story, I would’ve told it about anybody. And I really wanted to. I didn’t have a target audience. I definitely wanted African-Americans for sure to see the film so they could see because I hear all the time. I get letters all the time like, we’ve never seen ourselves on the screen all at once, like all black people working together or people doing things together for each other and supporting each other and not playing one role or being the bad person or being poor or this or that. But I wanted it to reach. I literally my prayer was like, I pray that this reaches everyone that it’s supposed to reach around the world. And if it can motivate and inspire and empower as many people as possible, that was my goal. And that’s what’s happened. Thank God. But it really has been wonderful to hear from people of all continents. Everybody writing in saying, oh, I didn’t know this or I’d never seen this before or I didn’t know this part about American history or the civil rights footage that we really wanted to put the film because I knew that out of everything that was going to be the most talked about that people forgot or that they don’t show in schools anymore. I grew up in schools where they used to show that all the time. They don’t do that anymore. And I think it’s important because you don’t necessarily have to say anything. You just show footage. And I think people understand from watching something, which I think is the beauty of what you guys want to do in life is the beauty of storytelling is showing something as opposed to beating it on the head all the time and trying to just suffocate someone to understand. Sometimes it’s just an image because the image is so powerful. So that’s what we wanted to do.

Eric Conner: Miss Avant envisioned The Black Godfather as an opportunity to share her father’s legacy. So a new generation could learn about how far he went to make things happen, both for himself and for others. Just as importantly, it also shows the power and importance of artistic expression.

Nicole Avant: I realized at a young age. I’ve watched everyone around me, and the beauty was that I realized that everyone, no matter how successful you’d see it on TV or in the newspapers, you read about them that they had a human experience like everybody else and the human experience is up and down and up and down and sad and happy and this and that. And humans have to become strong. We all have to be, develop a muscle within ourselves to get up again and run. And sometimes we have to pause longer than others. Sometimes the pause is really long and very hurtful and sometimes it’s not. But the trick is you have to know that you have to get up and run again. And it’s tiring. But I think it’s the ticket in life. I think it’s just that’s it. But music motivates me. Music and movies. Like without movies. Movies actually help me survive, really, because I would go into other people’s stories and other people’s worlds. And when you see trauma and sadness and pain through somebody else’s eyes and somebody else’s story, it kind of gives you, I think helps develop a strong muscle in you. And you kind of learn from other people. At least I did. I watched movies all the time. It’s honestly music and movies because it’s again, music is storytelling. So stories have gotten me through everything in life. And I’d always go back to different characters. And, you know, It’s A Wonderful Life was my favorite movie at a very young age because I thought the angel Clarence did what my father did. That’s why I thought, oh, my God, that’s what my dad does. Same. His name is Clarence. It’s the same thing. But but that movie made a very big impact on me of faith and people having faith in you and being a really good person and bad things happening to you or unfair things happening to you. So that’s what keeps me motivated, is other stories so that you don’t feel like it’s only you.

Eric Conner: Miss Avant’s love letter to her father’s life and career manages to do all of that and then some. We want to thank her for sharing her story with our students. And thanks to all of you for listening. By the way, she’s married to Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer of Netflix. We did an episode on him a little while back. So give it a listen.

This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Tova Laiter to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. To learn more about our programs. Check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

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