Vague Visages’ Is That Black Enough for You review contains minor spoilers. Elvis Mitchell’s 2022 Netflix documentary features Margaret Avery, Harry Belafonte and Charles Burnett. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Veteran critic Elvis Mitchell’s excellent documentary/essay Is That Black Enough for You?!? gazes deeply and lovingly at the rich and varied historical contributions of African American film artists, focusing especially on the vibrant and tumultuous 1970s. Extending beyond Blaxploitation to consider the complete cinematic spectrum from independent productions to the output of the major studios, the director’s guided tour is every bit as indispensable as A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. Like that sprawling 1995 gem, Mitchell’s work comes from a place of intense cinephilia and personal knowledge. If you can’t live without the movies, Is That Black Enough for You?!? is one of the year’s essential experiences.
The film’s home on Netflix follows an October premiere at the New York Film Festival, where Mitchell and producer Steven Soderbergh engaged in a conversation moderated by NYFF executive director Eugene Hernandez. During that discussion, Mitchell says that at one point he pitched the project as a book and was subsequently turned down by every major publisher. Fortunately for viewers, the artifact that ultimately came to fruition brings to bear the very same storytelling tools of sound and vision that the director highlights through dozens of electrifying movie clips and choice music selections.
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As the festival program points out, Mitchell’s approach is both “personal and panoramic.” Is That Black Enough for You?!? consistently finds the right tone and balance even when one wishes certain movie titles, filmmakers or performers were afforded more time on the screen. The vibe is so fluid — in terms of quantity and quality — that viewers will want to frequently pause, rewind and review the incisive assemblage. One imagines scores of wannabe directors feverishly scribbling notes and making to-see lists while Mitchell lays out one astonishing lesson after another.
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The talking-head subjects — including Harry Belafonte, Samuel L. Jackson, Charles Burnett, Whoopi Goldberg, Zendaya, Antonio Fargas, Billy Dee Williams, Glynn Turman and others — follow Mitchell’s lead by outlining their own relationships to hallmark movies and silver screen gods and goddesses. Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Pam Grier and Richard Pryor are better known by mainstream (read: white) audiences than Rupert Crosse, Diana Sands, Sheila Frazier, Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln, but Mitchell seamlessly transitions among assessments of these talents and others without skipping a beat. The expert curation creates a party atmosphere in which the generous host makes warm introductions to old friends.
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With editors Michael Engelken and Doyle Esch, Mitchell illuminates dazzling and enticing moments from too many films to name in a short review. Nothing But a Man (1964), Watermelon Man (1970), Save the Children (1973), Ganja & Hess (1973), The Education of Sonny Carson (1974), Cornbread, Earl and Me (1975) and Abar (1977) are just a fraction of the total. In one example of the director’s brilliance as an educator, the lasting influence of Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) is presented in side-by-side diptychs, a terrific technique also used to great effect this year in Lynch/Oz. Mitchell returns to the device to mark the way that the opening strut and swagger of Saturday Night Fever (1977) cribbed from Shaft (1971), illustrating just how much big-budget fare for white audiences borrowed and stole — Mitchell goes with “expropriated” — from Black cool.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.
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