I honestly don’t have a pithy or particularly insightful preamble this time around. The long and short of it, this documentary has snuck up on me like a ninja. And it’s with a considerable amount of anticipation and delight that I quickly watched it as soon as I heard of its existence. Elvis Mitchell has always been a formative critic in my mind whether it’s viewing vintage clips of him sparring with Roger Ebert or listening to his insightful interviews with filmmakers on his podcast (The Treatment). It almost seems silly at this point to pose a meaningful question after this adoration and gushing. But here goes, shooting straight from the proverbial hip. Have you seen Is That Black Enough For You? What did you think of some of the topics in the documentary? Let me know in the comments below.
Much like the phrase is used in Ossie Davis’s Cotton Comes to Harlem, the documentary, Is that Black Enough For You is a potent lightning rod for Elvis Mitchell’s exploration of black cinema. Part love letter to the sub-genre and part critical essay for the depiction of African Americans, Mitchell’s documentary is ambitious and powerful in its message about black representation.
Told through a combination of many famous talking heads (including Samuel L Jackson, Lawrence Fishburne and Harry Belafonte) along with archival footage of many films and news footage, Mitchell’s documentary is seemingly about the rise and fall of black cinema in the 1970s. However, the cultural critic expands the focus to hit on several issues that have permeated black representation throughout the medium.
One section in which Mitchell lays out his personal criticism about 1939 and how many of its beloved movies depicted white actors taking on black parts or regressive portrayals of African Americans is a formidable takedown of a much treasured time for Hollywood movies. There were even sections where I was shaken by some of Mitchell’s points.
A great example is Mitchell juxtaposing footage from the end of Night of the Living Dead with real-life footage of riots. I’d always known about the great effect and meaning of Duane Jones’s casting in Night of the Living Dead along with the harrowing ending. However, to see how much art had imitated life in such a nightmarish manner was earth-shattering in my appreciation of the true horror of George Romero’s freshman zombie film.
Likewise, Mitchell’s point about how Robert Downey Jr (who played an actor who became black in Tropic Thunder) may have been inspired by his father, who did the dubbing for one of the black actors in the film was sharp in its generational implications.
The most surprising aspects of the documentary were the mini threads that Mitchell inserts throughout. Chief among them is one about sexuality in black cinema, not only from how women and interracial encounters were perceived but also how leading men grew in their sexual appeal. In his discussion of Shaft, Mitchell’s point about the camera work speaks to this, “The camera wasn’t spying on the star.” It was staring at him.” This point about how the camera goes from paranoid to interested in its leading man is a great example of the vividness of Mitchell’s writing.
While the documentary makes a lot of great points about black pride (particularly expressed in a personal and moving coda) and many other topics, the picture suffers from its lack of debate around Blaxploitation. While one contributor makes a salient point about how the genre exploited African Americans, I did not feel much pushback or much of a rebuttal to this point. I wish the documentary dug into this more as it’s a fascinating prism to view representation both behind and in front of the camera. This in turn provokes the question of whether this form of representation was a cynical Trojan Horse for a large cross-section of the American populace.