Black films have existed since the silent era. Filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux and later Spencer Williams worked tirelessly to write, direct and represent Black life on screen. However, amid unbridled anti-Blackness and the Jim Crow era, Hollywood studios, who owned the biggest movie houses at the time, locked Black films out of their cinemas. White writers, directors and producers of that era had their own ideas about Black life — ones that were riddled with demeaning stereotypes and degrading roles.
Yet, as film scholar and historian Elvis Mitchell describes in his dense but riveting film essay, Is That Black Enough For You?!?, racism didn’t stop Black people from falling in love with movies. Nor did it stop the deep yearning within many of them, Mitchell included, from wanting to see themselves represented on the big screen.
In a two-hour-plus history lesson, Mitchell digs deep into the cinema archive. He moves from the silent era into the late 1970s when Black life was finally seen in abundance on screen. However, instead of just diving into the Blaxploitation era, which gave way to iconic films like Shaft (1972), Claudine (1974), Cornbread Earl and Me (1975), and Sparkle (1976), Mitchell, using facts and antidotes from his lengthy career examines how we got there. He also reflects on the financial failure of The Wiz (1978). Following its critical and commercial loss, Black films were shunned in Hollywood again until the ‘90s.
Lending to Mitchell’s thoughtful narrations are interviews from a wide cast of Black talent, including Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, Marla Gibbs, Charles Burnett, Billy Dee Williams, Zendaya, and the iconic Harry Belafonte. The Carmen Jones (1954) actor spoke about his self-imposed decade-long break from acting during the ‘60s when Hollywood was still refusing the showcase the wholeness of Black life in film. For those who weren’t able to be on screen, like the late Sidney Poitier, Michell often offered a quick story or a piece of advice that he received from them.
Before zoning in on the Black films of the ‘70s, which shifted Black representation on screen, reshaped Hollywood, debuted the film soundtrack, and saved many studios from financial ruin, Mitchell highlights some of the lesser-known but more riveting films of the 20th century. They included Nothing But A Man (1964), Killer of Sheep (1978), and A Man Called Adam (1966), which will hopefully encourage viewers to go and search them out.
Is That Black Enough For You?!? also highlights some of the greatest Black artists of all time, including Diana Sands, Abbey Lincoln, and Ivan Dixon. Decades later, they still haven’t gotten the recognition that they deserve. However, Mitchell’s examination of Black films in the ‘70s is the crowing jewel in this film. From the pushback against films like Super Fly (1972) due to respectability politics to the amplification of Black women as more than just arm candy, he weaves a tapestry of what was, what could have been and what we continue to strive for in terms of Black representation in Hollywood.
With a run time of 135 minutes, there is a lot to unpack in Is That Black Enough For You?!?, and Mitchell tried to jam it all in. Since its timeline stops at the end of the ‘70s, the film may have been better served as a limited series, bringing us into the present day while giving Mitchell more breathing room to truly sit and unpack the subject matter. However, with his outstanding analysis, dazzling clips, and compelling reflections, Is That Black Enough For You?! will undoubtedly be a staple in cinema studies and for the causal cinephile for decades to come.
Is That Black Enough For You?!? premiered at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 9. It will debut on Netflix Nov. 11.