August 26, 2008 / 8:34 PM / 10 years ago

New documentary looks at shifting U.S. black culture

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Even as the United States has the opportunity to elect its first black president, prominent American author Toni Morrison says black college students today are not as focused on racial issues as their predecessors.

Author Toni Morrison smiles as she arrives at Rolex's Mentor and Protege gala, November 10, 2003 in New York. REUTERS/Stephen Chernin

“In racial division, they are not interested. They are sort of bored with it,” said Morrison, the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and a Princeton University lecturer. “They don’t even want to talk about it.”

Morrison and other leading black Americans talk about black culture in a new HBO documentary airing on U.S. television this week, called “The Black List Vol.1,” featuring interviews with 23 successful black Americans from varied backgrounds.

The documentary, coming in a week when U.S. Sen. Barack Obama is set to secure the Democratic nomination to run for the White House, centers on what it means to be black in America and how that has evolved since the civil rights movement to abolish racial discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s.

The film’s director, portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, said Obama’s candidacy has brought about “the most open discussion of race since the civil rights movement in many ways ... that is a wonderful moment.”

Morrison, 77, told Reuters some older African Americans found it hard to accept that times had changed since the civil rights movement as the country moves closer to equality.

The older generation “are sometimes reluctant to see what they worked for come to fruition, which is a nonracist society — because they really want that to happen — but it is very difficult to give up on,” she said.

Morrison and others interviewed in the film, including Colin Powell, said America was yet to reach full racial equality. Powell cites people questioning his appointment as U.S. Secretary of State due to his race and ongoing problems with young black children receiving quality education.

An exhibit of photography portraits will also tour several U.S. cities and a book of essays and photos will be published to accompany the film.

“It opens your eyes to the concept that black talent is much wider and much more expansive than you thought it was,” Greenfield-Sanders said, noting the interviews conducted by journalist Elvis Mitchell were meant to shatter stereotypes.

Choreographer Bill T. Jones said times had changed since the early 1980s when fellow black artists expressed outrage at his remark that he thought of himself as an artist first and as black second.

“Everything has changed now and it has become much more complex. At that time I touched a very raw nerve as the memory of the ‘60s was much closer,” he said. “Now we have disenfranchisement.”

“America has deep big problems, still, with race,” Jones said, but he added that Obama’s candidacy showed “there is much to be proud of.”

Morrison dismissed attention given to Obama’s race as just a smoke screen.

“It is like Othello, everybody focuses on the fact that Othello is black, it is the least important thing about him,” she said. “Who wants to talk about issues when you can talk about ‘Oh, he’s black!”

Some said if Obama became president, it would restore faith in American ideals.

“It would do a great deal for America’s image of itself, and I don’t mean young black boys and girls who can say with a loud resounding voice ‘I can, I can’,” said Jones.

“Every person can say ‘this truly is a place that if you work hard enough and if you have the right skill set then you can do anything you want to do.’ That is what America always stood for,” he said.

Editing by Mark Egan and Anthony Boadle

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