The deeply knowledgeable and respected film critic and historian Elvis Mitchell takes his first crack at directing with the clearly personal and penetrating essay Is That Black Enough for You?!?. The film walks us through the history of Black cinema, putting much of its focus on the landmark era of the 1970s, but also acknowledging the earliest pioneers going back to the silent era. With a bevy of clips and newer interviews with those who were a part of the ’70s scene, as well as those who were deeply influenced by it, Mitchell’s documentary covers a great deal of ground and gives examples of both benchmark moments in history as well as other films that Hollywood should be deeply ashamed of, no matter the time period.
Some of the best interviews are with actors Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, and Billy D. Williams, who have story after story of their first time seeing Black faces on the screen in large numbers, even after growing up loving cowboy movies and serials with hardly a Black face in them (although plenty of white faces painted brown to play Native Americans). But aside from just being a collection of historic clips, Mitchell (who narrates) and his subjects also discuss the impact these films had on both Black and white cultures, and he makes an excellent case that filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino or films like Saturday Night Fever and Rocky wouldn’t exist were it not for Black cinema of the 1970s, commonly known as Blaxploitation. I particularly loved his discussion of the classic soundtracks of many of these movies, coming from the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Earth Wind and Fire, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye, and how, quite often, distributors would release the soundtrack weeks in advance to get people excited for the film—a practice that would become commonplace across the industry in the 1980s.
The film also dives into why Black cinema took off with white audiences in the ’70s, sensing that many of the crime and action movies with white stars weren’t delivering in the same way in terms of raw energy and overall coolness. Is That Black Enough for You?!? ends with a discussion of why this style of cinema faded out of popularity (probably because Hollywood finally figured out how to copy Black cinema and pump more money into both production and promotion), as well as a truly elegant interview with director Charles Burnett about his landmark indie drama Killer of Sheep. The stories from those who actually made the films Mitchell details are the best moments in the movie, and while I certainly am curious what Whoopi Goldberg and Zendaya have to say about representation, hearing the creatives behind these great movies is almost preferred.
Mitchell’s passion is only matched by his ability to dissect and analyze what made these films unique and so wildly entertaining. But he also makes it clear how they empowered an entire portion of the population who were tired of being ignored or pigeonholed into certain roles. And even though Mitchell could have made this a 10-part series, Is That Black Enough for You?!? is still well worth watching and a worthy jumping off point into this era of cinema. It’s also certainly a place where you can start making lists of movies you need to watch or rewatch for the next couple years of your life.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!