Elvis Mitchell is new Netflix documentation Is that black enough for you?!? is a swirling exploration of a particular piece of black film history. His main interest is in the 1970s and their borders. Blaxploitation Moment, Melvin Van Peebles, Liberation Politics, Pam Grier, Ali/Frazier, Lady sings the blues, and on and on. Mitchell, a longtime film critic, formerly the New York Times and elsewhere, is not just sifting through this story for story’s sake, even if the broad backbone of this film is an annual review of the decade. This tour feels personal. It shines with unique observations and detours: into the career ups and downs of figures like Harry Belafonte and Pam Grier, the deliberately multiple connections between the black film industry and black music, via titans like Isaac Hayes and Earth, Wind & Fire; in black horror and comedy, black style, the interest (or lack thereof) of Hollywood executives in catering to black audiences, and the numerous forgotten parts of film history (remember when Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait originally intended to be directed by Francis Ford Coppola, with Bill Cosby?). Mitchell has an insider’s skill for exciting details and unexpectedly insightful connections, a gift for association and cool, collected storytelling that drives the documentary forward in one fast, satisfying clip, and overwhelms us with the number of celebrity and movie references – big and big small – and according to his own impressions.
but Is that black enough for you?!? is only two hours long, and the story unearthed here is – as the documentary itself argues – extensive. A not entirely unfair complaint is that it all rushes by too quickly, doesn’t linger enough, isn’t neat enough of a story. Which in a way is the point. You may think you know this story, and many people do because they lived it. You remember the intense emotionality of echo sounder (1972) and argue about it racoon (1975) and mandingo (1975) and The great white hope (1970), Purchase of the soundtracks for Superfly and WaveShe falls in love with Billy Dee Williams and Diana Ross mahogany (1975) and Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones in claudine (1974). Mitchell’s documentary – which is itself both an act of remembrance and an expression of the director’s own skillful film criticism – is as much for these people as it is for anyone, especially modern black audiences who have never been heard of Cornbread, Earl and I (1975). At the very least, the film gives you a massive list of films to add to your watch list, with context as to why they stand out and why, for Mitchell, they are so closely tied into the bigger picture of black entertainment history. But that’s a minimum. Mitchell strives for more.
The film’s title is taken from the 1970 classic Cotton comes to Harlem – a relevant choice on several fronts as it is the work of a key Black activist and independent director (Ossie Davis) who is firmly seated at the beginning of what will eventually come to be termed “blaxploitation” (it was adapted from a novel of the same name by Chester Himes adapted). names), with staggering box office earnings that a Hollywood still run by white executives, for better or for worse, would find captivating. In many ways, this is the story Mitchell wants to tell: a story of an industry where pioneering black artists were trying to scrape their way out of an old system of outdated methods of depicting black, toward new depictions, and with them, new ones questions and problems. Mitchell is undaunted in his affection and respect for the black genius. Check out his asides, say, Melvin Van Peebles. exploration of The watermelon man (1970) allows an appreciation of its extraordinarily talented star, Godfrey Cambridge, and the work of black satire. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss song (1971) lends itself to the means and importance of Van Peeble’s brazen, strategic adaptation of the X rating; his seminal delivery of a soundtrack album (early work courtesy of Earth, Wind & Fire) with its long and crucial afterlife in the black ’70s at large – not to mention Mitchell’s appreciation for the style and substance of what Van Peebles pulls off.
Mitchell makes quite a bit of it. As he delves into the history of black cinema year after year, he takes the time to highlight a number of heroes – not only household names like Van Peebles or the biggest stars, but also personalities like director and artist extraordinaire Bill Gun (Ganya & Hess) and Suzanne de Passe (co-author of Lady sings the blues). Great, underrated actor Rupert Crosse — the first black actor to earn a supporting actor nomination — is lovingly touched, from his time at the Actors Studio to his friendship with Steve McQueen to his untimely death of lung cancer. The acting skills of a star like Pam Grier are examined for their sensibility, and by extension, the sensibility of roles for black women in the blaxploitation fare. All of this, even as Mitchell is careful to complicate this narrative with a darker context, reminding us of the role played by white directors and studios in blaxploitation, the cinematic failures of titanic white directors who misguidedly approached black issues (The Liberation by LB Jones, for example, or even more surprising, The Wizard), the role that money plays in all of this – and last but not least, the weird ebb and flow of it all, the way black celebrities are sometimes “in”, sometimes out of the entertainment industry depending on the patterns that feel quirky, but are not. The patterns can be understood to a large extent because they are repeated.
Sometimes the gaps in emphasis are so great that we forget – we are encouraged to forget – what came before. It is the habit of current discourse to claim ad nauseam that we – underrepresented groups – are seeing each other “for the first time” in films. Mitchell’s documentary reminds us, intentionally or not, that reality is far more complicated. Interviews with Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Whoopi Goldberg, Zendaya, Charles Burnett and many others are peppered with intergenerational accounts of life in film – both as filmmakers and, in the very early stages of life, as devoted audiences. When we are reminded of movies like Abar, the first black superman (1977) or hear Mitchell et al recite their experiences of watching movies in front of mostly black audiences in the ’70s, it encourages recollection of that longer history. Even Mitchell’s grandmother, he tells us, has movie memories — though her memories are decidedly more troubled.
However, Mitchell doesn’t just provide an accurate overview of an era in Black entertainment and film history — though Is that black enough?!? certainly satisfies on that front. He pleads for the sphere of the black film, for the specific sphere of black independently Film, as a site of great innovation, effectively a laboratory for forms of Black cinematic expression that had not yet graced cinema screens and that would prove profitable and attractive to the general public, influencing filmmaking far beyond the intended work among Black audiences . He’s always careful to contextualize his observations about black cinema and remind us of the concurrent strands in the white mainstream, be it the white anti-heroes of the ’70s – played by your Brandos, your McQueens, your Hackmans and Pacinos – or the Tarantino jive-talkers of the ’90s, who, as Mitchell points out, spat out lines that felt like they were written for black characters.
Mitchell is smart. It’s enjoyable to be on this tour of his mind and nimble kinetic talent for association and sharp deduction. Even if you know this area broadly, it’s watching someone go through it in their own way, invigorating in their own way. The documentary’s format, with its imitation of simple history, almost gets in the way of the project because it risks viewers expecting something closer to a robust history lesson than what it ultimately is. I’ve heard complaints that the film was too fast, too short. And Mitchell’s charisma is to blame for that, too: you could be screwed want that history lesson—especially from Mitchell.
This makes it imperative to remember where this movie begins. It starts in Mitchell’s head – in his memory. With observations about a grandmother who said films changed the way she dreamed. And memories of being a young moviegoer in Detroit myself. “Far more often than should be the case,” he tells us early on, “movies that were considered classics had a way of letting black people down.” Keywords: blackface images of Alfred Hitchcock and sing in the rain. Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier char their faces to play Shakespeare’s tragic Moor Othello. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, with their white gloves and facial expressions, played a little differently for black audiences in the early 20th century than they do today. What’s useful about Mitchell’s documentary isn’t just the breadth of its story, the new names, the new movies that many viewers are sure to get to know. It’s his fixed situation what this means for a black audience, especially the black psyche of the present and the past. Mitchell doesn’t just give us a tour of this story, he reclaims it as his – and reminds us why he fell in love with movies in the first place.