Documentary on Black Cinema

Elvis Mitchell’s new Netflix documentary illuminates the best and worst of Black cinema

I’ve been studying film for enough years that I judge documentaries like Elvis Mitchell’s “Is That Black Enough For You?” (Netflix, 2022, 135 min.) by what they can tell me or show me that I didn’t know before. 

Like this: one of my favorite films as a kid was a Diahann Carroll-James Earl Jones romantic comedy called “Claudine” (1974), directed by John Berry. Well, in his on-camera interview, Lawrence Fishburne reveals that he was actually cast in a previous version of the film that was never made. 

“Is That Black Enough For You?” is a revelation – the title comes from a key line in Ossie Davis’ 1970 comedy “Cotton Comes to Harlem” - and within five minutes, I knew I was going to learn a lot and see a lot that I’d never seen before. I plan to watch it again so that I can compile an accurate list  of the dozens and dozens of films that Mitchell places in cinematic and cultural history.

Like “Cinema Speculation”, Quentin Tarantino’s stunning new book of film essays, the structure is rooted in Mitchell’s memories of all the insulting, condescending portrayals of Blacks in film (you can bet he’s critical of “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With The Wind”), pioneers like Harry Belafonte, who rejected Hollywood’s stifling strictures, and Sidney Poitier, the first Black movie star, and, finally, the 1970’s “blaxploitation” wave that was wide enough to include not just Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971) and Jack Hill’s “Foxy Brown” (1974), but more thoughtful fare like Martin Ritt’s “Sounder” (1972) and Joseph Manduke’s “Cornbread, Earl and Me” (1975).

In addition to Fishburne, Mitchell interviews Margaret Avery (1972’s “Cool Breeze”), Belafonte, Charles Burnett (1978’s “KIller of Sheep”), Whoopi Goldberg (1992’s “The Player”), Samuel L. Jackson (“Pulp Fiction”), Suzanne de Passe (“Lady Sings The Blues”), Glynn Turman (“Cooley High”) and Zendaya (“Dune”).

I was so intrigued and moved by Mitchell’s new film that I went looking for physical media copies of the many films analyzed and discussed. Many of them appear to be out of print. Hey, Netflix, it would be really cool if you could add movies like “Killer of Sheep” and “Claudine” and “Cotton Comes to Harlem” to your streaming services, the way that you added WWII documentaries and propaganda to your site to promote your documentary series based on Mark Harris’ “Five Came Back”.

“Is That Black Enough For You?” is streaming on Netflix. 

Recommended: “The Menu”, playing at Cinemapolis and Regal Stadium 14.

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