Netflix documentary film “Is That Black Enough for You?!?”, directed and written by African American critic Elvis Mitchell, is more than a quick and useful guide for the African American movie history. Besides being enlightening as well as entertaining, the documentary works a sincere and enthusiastic tribute to a certain important part of the American cinema, and you can really sense genuine care and passion as Mitchell diligently and excitingly examines one interesting part after another of the African American movie history.
While its main subject is the rise and fall of the African American movies during the 1970s, the documentary also focuses on what came before that. Since the beginning of the American cinema history, African American movie characters had often been grossly marginalized or stereotyped in numerous notable major Hollywood films ranging from “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) to “Gone with the Wind” (1939), but a number of independent African American filmmakers including Oscar Mischeaux tried to present their people more on the screen, and the documentary delves a bit into how they made and distributed their films despite many systemic limits during that period. At least, things began to change around the 1950s with the emergence of African American Hollywood movie stars such as Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Harry Belafonte, but there were still barriers for many African American filmmakers out there nonetheless, and the documentary sharply points out how the Hollywood system kept standing on the road to more changes even after Poitier became the first black Best Actor Oscar winner in 1964.
However, there eventually came a point where Hollywood could not ignore African American people anymore. As the civil rights movement in US gained much more momentum during the 1960s, the need for African American movies grew a lot more than before, and some of notable films during the late 1960s already showed what would come sooner or later. In case of George A. Romero’s seminal horror film “The Night of the Living Dead” (1968), it boldly had an African American hero at the center of the story, and the devastating demise of that character at the end of the film certainly resonated a lot with what was going on outside in the American society during that time.
After making “The Learning Tree” (1969), African American filmmaker Gordon Parks, who was a well-known professional photographer before moving onto filmmaking later, made a little crime action movie called “Shaft” (1971), and, as many of you know, the rest is history. With its confident African American private detective hero coupled with Isaac Hayes’ cool soundtrack (He deservedly won a Best Song Oscar, by the way), the movie opened the door to many different African American stars and films of the 1970s, and it is often fun to see some of them introduced and examined one by one in the documentary.
One of those prominent African American filmmakers during that period is Melvin van Peebles, and the documentary spends some time on showing and telling us how savvy he was as a filmmaker/entrepreneur. As a part of the promotion for his notable films such as “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971), he often hired popular African American musicians for the soundtracks of his films, and that was how movie soundtracks became more popular than before. Many other African American filmmakers quickly followed his smart movies, and, as shown from a certain familiar classic song by Marvin Gaye, some of those soundtracks actually last a lot longer than their movies.
Around that point, African American cinema was not a mere underground area anymore. While “Shaft” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” led to the emergence of more Blaxploitation films in the downstairs, there were also more, uh, respectable but equally important movies such as “Sounder” (1972) and “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972) in the upstairs, and they all surely gave more and more boost to African American cinema. In addition, a number of African American actors and actresses such as Billy Dee Williams and Pam Grier became far more notable than before, and Glynn Turman, a veteran actor who recently appeared in Oscar-winning film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020), tells us an amusing episode on how he was approached by Ingmar Bergman (!) thanks to his performance in “Cooley High” (1975), which is incidentally available on Criterion DVD/Blu-ray at present.
However, like many good things, the prime of African American cinema during the 1970s did not last long. With the subsequent rise of Hollywood blockbuster films such as “Jaws” (1975) and “Star Wars” (1977), African American cinema became less popular than before, and its cool stuffs were quickly appropriated by many contemporary mainstream Hollywood films including “Rocky” (1976) and “Saturday Night Fever” (1977). Around the point where Charles Burnett’s great film “Killer of Sheep” (1978) is introduced, the mood understandably becomes mournful because the movie, which did not draw much attention at the time of its initial theatrical release, was one of the last notable films of that great era for African American Cinema.
Nevertheless, African American cinema has kept going on during next several decades, and numerous prominent African American filmmakers and performers interviewed in the documentary certainly confirm that to us. Besides Spike Lee, many different African American filmmakers ranging from Barry Jenkins to Dee Rees have respectively carried the torch as learning a lot from that prime period, and we have surely enjoyed their memorable films for many years.
In conclusion, “Is That Black Enough for You!?!” works well as an illuminating film essay, and Mitchell did a commendable job of juggling numerous archival footage and interview clips along with some personal history of his. I love documentaries which make me more aware of blind spots in my inconsequential knowledge, and I am glad to report to you that this is certainly one of such fantastic documentaries.