The history of Black Cinema and Black people in cinema in the United States has been the focus of articles, books, and has been touched on in other films (memorably in Spike Lee’s satirical masterpiece Bamboozled). In the new documentary Is That Black Enough For You?!?, writer/director Elvis Mitchell explores the topic in depth. While the film does reach back to the early days of film history, the primary focus is on the years 1968-1978. Mitchell shows this as a period of great variety and success in Black Cinema, and also coincides with Mitch ell’s young adulthood, allowing him to enrich the topic with his own experiences at the time. It turns what could be a more standard documentary into something more along the lines of personal essay, and the film is better for it.
Mitchell begins his story by enforcing the power of film, mentioning that his grandmother told him that movies changed the way she dreamed. Tod Browning’s Dracula made her dreams seem more like stories. But that power is quickly shown to be a double-edged sword, when early films primarily portrayed Black people as buffoons, or featured white people in blackface. Mitchell states that these early depictions had to have battered the self-image of his grandmother and other Black people who were so poorly represented in mainstream film. The issue of representation is reinforced as Mitchell begins to introduce his interview subjects to the film. These include actors such as Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Glynn Turman, Zendaya, and Margaret Avery, along with filmmaker Charles Burnett. They all have stories of seeing films with no Black characters, or with Black actors only serving as the help or as comic foils. Later in the film there is coverage of the early Black independent producer/directors like Oscar Micheaux who fought to bring their films to audiences outside of the Hollywood machine.
The story begins to shift with a focus on Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. Poitier became a leading man in the 50s and 60s, primarily playing roles that felt safe to white America but had a dignity denied most previous Black roles in Hollywood films. By 1968, when Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night were released, Poitier was a top box office draw. Belafonte was a star able to take only projects that interested in him. This was because his worldwide following meant that, in his own words from the film, if he was offered something that he felt wasn’t worthy of his attention, he could say “Fuck you, I’m going to Paris.” Mitchell also spotlights Duane Jones’s starring role in Night of the Living Dead in 1968. In 1969, the first studio-financed film from a Black writer-director was released, Gordon Parks’s The Learning Tree.
From this point, the thrust of the film is a year-by-year recap of Black achievement in film from
1968-1978. Mitchell weaves in dozens of titles and interviews while also taking time to discuss changes
in art and society during the time period. Artists like Ossie Davis, Rupert Crosse, Pam Grier, Diana Sands,
Godfrey Cambridge, Cicely Tyson, Richard Pryor, and Billy Dee Williams are given spotlight tributes. The
film also focuses on the turn to grittier stories like Parks’s Shaft and Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet
Sweetback’s BaadAsssss Song and family dramas like Sounder and Claudine. Music is also at the
forefront of the film, with special focus on Isaac Hayes’s score (and Best Song Oscar win) for Shaft and
the multiple scores of Curtis Mayfield.
In the late-going of the film, one theme explored especially well is the influence that Black-led
film had on white films of the era, from the importance of film soundtracks to the return of main characters as heroes after an early 70s run of antiheroes, and even smaller moments like the power of character introductions. A side-by-side comparison with the openings of Shaft and Saturday Night Fever hammers this point home.
Mitchell has made something excellent here. A wonderful mix of historical record and personal
essay. Black film is covered with great breadth and depth, but Mitchell’s passion for the subject still
leaves the audience wanting more. My watch list grew significantly as I wrote down many titles I want to
explore. The primary issue with the film is that Mitchell’s narration is somewhat dry. But it feels like
perhaps an unavoidable problem, as hiring someone else to narrate would remove the direct personal
connection to the subject and the films that Mitchell obviously has.
Is That Black Enough for You?!? is now streaming on Netflix.