The new project, described as part-essay and part-documentary, is currently streaming on Netflix.
A deep dive into one of the most powerful and impactful eras in American cinema, “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is officially on Netflix, and theGrio connected with the film historian and filmmaker behind the acclaimed documentary: Elvis Mitchell.
The project is described as both “a documentary and deeply personal essay,” that puts a magnifying glass up to African-American contribution to film throughout the ’70s, an era many refer to as the height of the “Blaxploitation” film. Including interviews with movie stars like Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne and Zendaya, the film reexamines this impactful era, why it ended so abruptly and the everlasting impact it’s had not only on Black film, but American film at large.
Mitchell, who created and narrates the project, could not have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, yet this documentary comes at a very interesting time for the film industry as it attempts to rebound from worldwide lockdowns and is still navigating racial reckonings from the summer of 2020.
“We were supposed to begin production in May of 2020, then [the pandemic] happened and it shut us down for about a year, and then other things happened over the course of the year that really forced me to ask the kind of questions of myself that I wanted this project to ask anyway,” Mitchell said. “These things like the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 mirrored historical moments tracked in the project.
“We forget that every decade in the 21st century had a racial insurrection and we were reminded of that in pretty forceful ways just how far we have not come.”
The intersection of race relations and film in the ’70s, Mitchell explained, was “transformational and unexpected,” something he knew he wanted to reexamine in “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” In many ways, he noted, by looking back at this era, we can clearer see the battles we are still fighting in terms of representation in Hollywood. “A lot of these questions are perennial, aren’t they?,” he asked, rhetorically. “Before we were able to ascribe the phrase ‘representation,’ we knew that we weren’t seeing things.”
This outlook, one that he references in the film, came from his grandmother who would ask herself, “what’s not there?” and “why isn’t it there?” Mitchell told theGrio.
For Mitchell, this notion of missing elements is a frustrating conundrum, especially when considering Westerns, for instance, which Black people have longed to see themselves in for some time. Last year’s, “The Harder They Fall” is one example. “A number of people in the film [‘Is That Black Enough for You?!?’] talk about needing a Western … What does being on a horse give you? It gives you agency, it gives you the ability to determine which direction you’re going to go in,” Mitchell said. “And movies couldn’t allow that, that becomes a really nuanced and insidious kind of racism where you’re saying Black people don’t have the power to make a decision to get on a horse and go someplace. It becomes this far-reaching thing where it makes the idea of a Black western still seem like an incredible thing to see, when we as a people were incredibly instrumental into what the [American] West was.”
The documentary also explores the use of the term, “Blaxploitation,” and how it is often applied to diminish Black contribution to film in the ’70s. “It’s used to reduce and say it’s this kind of campy thing that was wildly over the top and was of no real dramatic consequence,” Mitchell said.
Recalling a meeting with a studio head who worked in the industry throughout the ’70s, Mitchell said the executive disclosed the “dirty little secret” of American movies: Black film financed much of ’70s film.
“You think about those filmmakers who are said to be part of the Golden Age who had the luxury of getting to make movies that failed, while movies like ‘Shaft’ helped deliver MGM from bankruptcy,” he noted. “These [Black] movies were enormous box-office successes that played into something that American mainstream movies had abandoned: this hero myth.” One can look today at the popularity of superhero films as an example of that myth still being popular today.
White actors had the luxury of rejecting the myth in hopes of trying something new artistically, but Black actors still had to toe the line of the popular American storytelling model. Yet, they were still able to express themselves in inventive ways. “Ron O’Neal in ‘Super Fly’ is both hero and anti-hero,” Mitchell explained. “He’s playing an anti-hero with the bravado of a hero and that had not been done before in that way.”
Although the term “Blaxploitation” seems to lump these films together, they are not monolithic in any sense. They spanned genres, styles and tones, like movies from Black creatives do today. Still, these Black-created films are unfairly labeled: “Blaxploitation” has morphed into “Black film.”
“If you make a Black western, it’s a ‘Black film,’ if you make a Black romantic comedy, it’s a ‘Black film,’ if you make a Black melodrama, it’s a ‘Black film’,” Mitchell mused. “So when it fails, it’s not the genre that is failing, it’s Black film that is failing … Black film is still thought to be this monolith conceptually, which is crazy to me … The impulse is to rob us of complexity, of nuance, of definition in effect by just saying ‘it’s Black or it’s not.”
Mitchell hopes that his documentary will challenge these reductive notions through thoughtful dialogue. “The argument takes away from the conversation and I want it to be a conversation rather than an argument.”
“Is That Black Enough For You?!?” is currently streaming on Netflix.
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