‘Is That Black Enough for You?!?’ Review: Elvis Mitchell’s Meticulous Class on Black Film History


It occurs each few a long time, every time extra reverentially than the final: declarations of Black artwork’s existence. There are whispers of a renaissance, speak of watershed moments. Certain demographics rush to rejoice its arrival, and people allergic to tendencies (or with a reminiscence longer than a decade) dutifully remind that it’s at all times been right here. Chatter about illustration, necessity, which means and craft is run via till it fizzles. And then we do it once more.

Elvis Mitchell’s Is That Black Enough for You?!?, which premiered on the New York Film Festival and lands on Netflix Nov. 11, is the type of work that tries to free us from this purgatory of mental relitigation. The documentary — dense and thought of — examines the impression and legacy of Black movies launched through the late Sixties to late Seventies, a decade remembered for the proliferation of Blaxploitation flicks.

Is That Black Enough for You?!?

The Bottom Line

Ambitious in scope, wealthy in substance.

Venue: New York Film Festival (Spotlight)
Release date: Tuesday, Nov. 11 (Netflix)
Director: Elvis Mitchell

Rated R,
2 hours quarter-hour

Mitchell makes use of his movie essay, which interweaves private experiences with cultural criticism, to counter typical interested by that interval. He engages with a horde of movies — from William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One and Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man to Gordon Parks Jr.’s Super Fly — to craft an argument about how Black administrators, performers, writers and musicians reinvigorated cinema via each formal and narrative experimentation.

Is That Black Enough for You?!?‘s ambition is an achievement, but such a voluminous study needs the right medium. Sitting through the film, which covers an impressive amount of ground in its more than two-hour runtime, I bristled at publishers’ rejections of Mitchell’s guide proposal. (According to press notes, Mitchell shopped Is That Black Enough for You?!? round to totally different publishing homes, all of which turned him down.) The materials he presents — wealthy, diverse and incisive — is ideal fodder for a written textual content or, dare I say, an extended sequence. An expository feature-length documentary works, however bits of substance inevitably get misplaced to the cuts, edits and elisions required of the shape.

Mitchell’s doc capabilities finest as an academic primer, a (lengthy) tasting menu that won’t solely develop your palette however depart you hungry for extra. For audiences fast to dismiss, or asleep to, the contributions of Black filmmakers, that is required viewing; for many who suppose they find out about this decade of cinematic historical past, I counsel you run don’t stroll to activate Netflix when it drops.

The private units the tone for this documentary, which shares structural and tonal similarities to the cinema research embedded in Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. Mitchell, an influential movie critic, channels Baldwinian evaluation all through Is That Black Enough for You?!?, which he wrote, directed and narrates. He anchors his probing movie criticism with anecdotes charting his personal difficult relationship to films. Interspersed all through are interviews from an eclectic mixture of Black cinema figures, from Laurence Fishburne, Whoopi Goldberg and Zendaya to Harry Belafonte and Suzanne de Passe. Their commentary stretches Mitchell’s work, threading his ideas into the huge quilt of Black cinema historical past. But in addition they provide a welcome reprieve, a pause from the regular drum of knowledge.

Is That Black Enough for You?!? opens with a broad remark about American cinema, its rejection of Black audiences and the way Mitchell’s grandmother regulated his consumption of shifting pictures. He couldn’t, for instance, watch The Andy Griffith Show as a result of there have been no Black individuals in it. “What do you think happened to them?” his grandmother would ask. These sorts of questions, which Mitchell poses all through the movie, preview the psychological acrobatics Black individuals have interaction in when watching “classic” shifting pictures. Their exclusion will not be at all times an indication of ignorance on the a part of the creators, however relatively a testomony to, and reflection of, the undercurrent of racist violence that retains some American locales white.

Mitchell methodically organizes and presents his ideas. There’s a poetry to the narration, too, a demonstrable consolation with the audio format (Mitchell hosts KCRW’s radio present The Treatment). An overview of the American movie panorama — together with the myopic mission of studios to form, as an alternative of reply to, the tradition — segues into extra particular evaluation. Like a jeweler analyzing treasured stones, Mitchell seems to be at these options from all angles — an encyclopedic method that could make it tougher to comply with the movie’s broader goal and essence. He provides transient plot summaries earlier than teasing out the flicks’ most fascinating qualities, from narrative strides to improvements in craft and style. He considers these works alongside the sociopolitical battles brewing within the background: World War II; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers; and the ghastly lynching of Emmett Till. His enthusiasm, even within the face of difficult subject material, is infectious; you allow the doc wanting to like something as a lot as Mitchell loves films.

Viewers who’re aware of present discourse about Black cinema will discover affirmation in Is That Black Enough for You?!?, which doesn’t shirk from criticizing American cinema’s conservatism and exclusivity. Studios are engines of nationwide mythmaking, serving to to conjure and maintain fictive visions of the United States. Belafonte, who’s interviewed extensively right here, is positioned as an icon for an more and more uncommon type of creative integrity, incessantly declining roles that didn’t take his expertise significantly or tried to show him right into a caricature.

One of essentially the most fascinating components of Mitchell’s doc is his detailed examination of movie scores and soundtracks, a subject that notably piqued my curiosity and I want he’d lingered on longer. Here, Mitchell is at an analytical peak, describing Curtis Mayfield’s voice and music as a “honeyed falsetto” rendering the battle of black Americans. He gives a idea, which he briefly attributes to a dialog with a studio government, that Super Fly popularized a pattern of releasing soundtracks earlier than a movie’s premiere to lure audiences in. (This, Mitchell says, was a Van Peebles approach). The connection pushes us to consider the aesthetic and industrial relationship between pictures and sound, how music prompts and sharpens the imaginative worlds constructed in movies.

Just as we settle into that topic, although, Is That Black Enough for You?!? strikes on to its subsequent movie and mode of study. There’s a dizzying high quality to the undertaking, which regularly leaps from one consideration to the subsequent: the aesthetics of Black movies, the legacy of particular opening sequences, the perform of music, the economics of impartial filmmaking versus studio-backed ventures. Rare is the reflection on Black cinema that even tries to handle all these essential factors. Still, it makes digestion, particularly on the primary watch, overwhelming. Is That Black Enough for You?!? is layered and informative however, like a scholarly thesis, requires a bit of labor to unpack. It’s a problem price accepting.


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