As a straight white male, I’m cautious about weighing in when it comes to race in America, but as a film critic who’s trying to be more worldly, the timing of Simon Frederick’s “Black Hollywood: They’ve Gotta Have Us” (Netflix-Array, 2020, 3 hrs.) couldn’t be better. Hitting Netflix in February, just in time for Black History Month, this series delves deeply into the triumphs and slights over the course of mainstream black cinema. It is packed with provocative and passionate commentary from as many black filmmaker and performers as can fit into its three hour-long episodes
Director and narrator Simon Frederick interviews dozens of people over the course of the series, including cultural critic Nelson George, and actors ranging from trailblazers like Harry Belafonte and Diahann Carroll to today’s stars like David Oyelowo and John Boyega. There are also lengthy chats with performers who have become directors and producers, like Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) and Debbie Allen (“Amistad”). Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy are discussed in detail, though neither participated. The most notable exclusion is maverick Melvin Van Peebles, whose “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” was self-financed and became a huge hit in 1971.
The funniest and most revealing interview may be Robert Townsend, who paid for “Hollywood Shuffle” with credit cards, chose locations so that they wouldn’t be seen by the cops, and edited the film in a post-production house for porn. Too many controversial areas are covered to mention here, but the series is a treasure trove of film clips from lots of great and influential films. There’s a lot to discover, so dive in.
Sad to say, but we learn more from our failures than our successes. No one ever sets out to make bad art, but Lonny Price’s “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened…” (Netflix, 2016, 95 min.) details the grand ambitions and good intentions that went into the 1981 Broadway musical production of “Merrily We Roll Along.” It was based on a classic play. It had serious talent behind it: Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince, who’d had a string of hit shows as a team.
It closed after 16 performances.
Actor-turned-director Price was a member of the original cast, and he interviews Sondheim and Prince, as well as most of the cast, including one Jason Alexander, who became a huge TV star years later on “Seinfeld.” ABC News was shooting hours of footage for a documentary that was scrapped when the show flopped, and Price managed to find most of it. He also tracks the post-flop history of the show, which never really went away. The scathing reviews at the time of its premiere have been forgotten, and now there are generations of theater fans who don’t know that “Merrily We Roll Along” wasn’t a hit.
If I’ve learned one thing in this life, it’s this: Never bet against Betty White. White is 98 today and still going strong. I was a fan dating back to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Password” in the 1970s. “Betty White: First Lady of Television” (Netflix, 2018, 55 min.) fills in a whole life and career that I knew nothing about, including White’s early work in radio and TV sitcoms. And she’s had success in every decade she’s worked, like “The Golden Girls” (turns out Ryan Reynolds is a huge fan), “Hot in Cleveland“ and her stint hosting “Saturday Night Live.” (It’s too bad the filmmakers didn’t include her terrific guest shots in season two of “Community.”) If you don’t know why the world loves Betty White, check out this documentary.