There was a red carpet and red velvet rope outside the Prince Music Theater Thursday night. But inside, the color scheme was definitely - and celebratorily - black.

A crowd of nearly 500, among them the Rev. Al Sharpton and Negro League baseball legend Mahlon Duckett, was on hand for the Philadelphia premiere of

The Black List: Volume One

- an extraordinary documentary featuring interviews with 22 prominent African Americans reflecting on issues of race, struggle and achievement.

From Guns N' Roses' guitarist Slash to former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, from Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison to Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons, from Oscar-winning actor Lou Gossett Jr. to erotica novelist Zane, the film offers a compelling collage of views on what it means to be black in 21st-century America.

"It's a moving experience," Sharpton told the audience before the lights went down and

The Black List

went on. On screen, the preacher, civil rights activist and former presidential candidate reflects on his favorite passage in the Bible (it's the 37th Psalm), and then segues into a funny, surprising, heartfelt discourse on the huge impact that soul legend James Brown has had on his life.

"I had no idea about many of the people in the film," he told the Prince audience. "You have everybody in this from Chris Rock to Serena Williams. . . . You have the complete spectrum from Colin Powell to" - dramatic pause - "me."

"I even like Colin Powell after watching this," the politically provocative Sharpton added, prompting a big laugh from the crowd. "I sent him a note saying, 'I always thought you were born in uniform defending Republicans until I saw this.' "

The Black List

- which premieres on HBO Aug. 25 at 9 p.m. - has its origins back in early 2006, when Elvis Mitchell, the former New York Times film critic, and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the photographer, met in a Thai restaurant in Manhattan.

"We threw around thoughts about working together on something, and we weren't sure if it was a book, or maybe it was a film, and maybe it was a show of my portraits," Greenfield-Sanders said Thursday evening. "And here we are 21/2 years later and it's all of those things. It's a book that's coming out next month [from Simon & Schuster], and it is a traveling show [of portraits] that's in Houston's Museum of Fine Arts now, going to the Brooklyn Museum."

And, of course, it's the film.

Mitchell said that they named the project

The Black List

as a way to reclaim the phrase, wresting it back from the negative.

"I don't know a single black person who likes hearing that stuff like 'the blacklist,' or 'black-hearted,' " said Mitchell. "So, why don't we just get together a really cool, interesting group of black people and call it

The Black List?

So much about the black culture has been about reclaiming the negative, anyway."

Mitchell, who is black, and Greenfield-Sanders, who's white, shot two test interviews with friends - writer Morrison and Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. And then the duo went looking for money to make their doc.

They found it in Philadelphia: Freemind Ventures, a group of area entrepreneurs and entertainment and investment execs, rustled together the funding for the project. Michael Slap Sloane, who shares producer credit with Mitchell and Greenfield-Sanders, is based in Blue Bell, and has been instrumental in the restoration of the Ambler moviehouse.

"That's the only way I thought I was ever going to be involved in the movies," he joked Thursday night, watching the limos roll up to the Prince curb. "And along came this opportunity."

Payne Brown, whose day job is vice president of strategic initiatives at Comcast, shares executive producer credit with his Philly-based Freemind colleagues Chris McKee, Scott Richman and Tommy Walker.

After being shown the Morrison and Golden interviews, Brown says he was determined to bring the film to fruition. Never mind that he and his partners had little history with financing features.

"It's funny. I've worked at Comcast, and I've done some things before, but collectively, this is all sort of our first experience," Brown said before the screening. "So, everything that we said we were going to do, people would say, 'Oh no, that won't happen.'

"We'd say, 'Well, we're going to take it to Sundance.'

" 'You can't get into Sundance. You guys have never done anything!'

"And then we got the call: Guess what, we're in Sundance.

"Then we say, 'You know, we've been talking to HBO.'

" 'HBO! Come on, do you know how hard it is to get HBO to even look at your documentary?'

" "Guess what, HBO just acquired us. . . .'

"I mean, we got a book deal.

" 'Book deal? You can't get a book deal!'

"It's just been a blessing."

As its complete title suggests, there are plans afoot for

The Black List: Volume Two,

and perhaps for subsequent docs dealing with other facets of the American experience. In addition to its HBO broadcasts,

The Black List

will likely have a theatrical run to qualify for Oscar consideration. There are also educational programs and Internet spin-offs in the works.

"It's an American message," Sharpton told the crowd, before slipping out to head back to New York. "

The Black List

is not for blacks, it's just told from a black point of view. Because the message is that all of us, as we persist, and all of us, if we face our obstacles, and all of us, if we see what it is that we must negotiate in life, none of us have excuses not to move forward.

"At the end of the film it says to blacks, to whites, to Latinos, Asians, everybody that watches, that all right, this is what inspired me, this is what I saw, this is what I observed along the way, but none of us had any excuses.

"We ended up where we are because we would not settle for anything other than that."