When Nicole Avant was growing up in Beverly Hills in the 1970s and ’80s, her father, Clarence Avant, was one of the most connected and successful African American power brokers in the music industry. He launched record labels, owned radio stations and became a key figure in politics and the civil rights movement.
The Avant home was always buzzing with a stream of Hollywood and Washington insiders coming and going. “I knew that he was very powerful because the phone rang constantly and I always heard him fixing something or giving advice,” says Nicole, who made her producing debut with Netflix’s “The Black Godfather,” a documentary about her father. “And then I did see him on ‘Soul Train’ one day, and he was giving an interview with Don Cornelius. …That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, he must be a big deal because he’s on television.’”
That point is driven home by the documentary, which features interviews with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, David Geffen, Jamie Foxx, Sean “Diddy” Combs and the late Bill Withers, whom Avant signed to his Sussex Records while the singer was still working as an aircraft assembler.
Nicole Avant, who is married to Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, says she had plans to shop the doc around before her husband snapped it up for the streamer. “I actually had this idea in my head since I was a little girl. I really did,” Avant, who served as Obama’s ambassador to the Bahamas, says on this week’s episode of the Variety and iHeart podcast “The Big Ticket.” “I had told Ted, even when I was dating him, there’s this idea I have for this film, and I said to him, ‘I’m going to take it to HBO.’ Once I started getting the interviews and everyone started confirming, Ted said, ‘Do you really have all these people saying yes?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, for sure.’ He said, ‘Let me take a look at it again.’ And then at that point, Ted is a part of the family, and he saw a solid film, and he saw an important film, and he actually wanted to tell the story just as much or even more than I did.”
What do you want people to know about your dad?
I really wanted people to take away that it’s important to have a strong sense of self. It’s important to keep moving forward. It’s important to pay back. It’s important to move the needle. Also, it’s very important to take risks in life. Sometimes you’re going to fail. Sometimes people are going to say no. So what? It’s a part of life. You keep going. You pick yourself back up again.
What did you learn about your dad while making the documentary that you didn’t know already?
I took it for granted how hard his childhood was and how abusive it was — having a stepfather, really beating up my grandmother in front of him and in front of the other children. My dad didn’t really have a childhood, and he took care of seven kids because everyone was working and they were so poor.
How hard was it to hear those stories?
Very hard for me. And it made a lot of sense when everything did fall down for him and everything blew up at one time and we lost everything. I think everything triggered to his childhood again of not having things he didn’t have or anybody to really rely on.
Tell me about a time in which someone really big turned up at the house and you were like, ‘What is this person doing here?’”
The one time I was very star-struck was when Whitney Houston showed up one day and I had just been listening to the “Greatest Love of All.” I’d sing it in the car like I was Whitney Houston. I was floored; I stood at the front door and I thought, “Oh, my God, this is a real celebrity. This is a big deal.”
If you were to make a scripted narrative about your dad, who would play him?
Forest Whitaker could play him because he knows him and he could “get” him actually.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Hear it in its entirety below. You can also listen to “The Big Ticket” at iHeartRadio or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.