Film critic and historian Elvis Mitchell’s new Netflix documentary Is That Black Enough For You?!? rewrites a false narrative about Black cinema that has kept it in the margins of movie history rather than front and center, where it belongs.
“There’s this thing where Black culture exists as this underground phenomenon,” Mitchell said in a Q&A on Saturday following a screening of the film on the opening day of the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, which takes place from Oct. 22-29.
Black cinema is anything but underground. Instead, Mitchell argues, Black cinema “ends up being the well water that grows all these other things, and never gets, as you know, their due.”
To illustrate his point, Mitchell — who wrote, directed, produced, and narrates Is That Black Enough For You?!? — combs through dozens of pieces of Black cinema that came out during the booming period between 1968 and 1978, referencing films starring Black actors that paved the way for trends that later showed up in films starring white actors.
“When I saw Saturday Night Fever as a kid, like maybe in high school, my friends and I just went, ‘This is Shaft.’ You can’t [see it] and not see that moment,” Elvis Mitchell said.
In Is That Black Enough For You?!?, Mitchell shows the opening scenes of both Shaft (1971) and Saturday Night Fever (1977) back to back, and the similarities between them are hard to ignore — they each feature Richard Roundtree and John Travolta, respectively, in suits, walking down the street to the beat of similar songs. Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and also won the Oscar for best original song in 1972. Mitchell argues that, after Shaft and other Black films of the time proved that movie soundtracks could generate excitement if they were released before the film, only then did white-starring films like Saturday Night Fever follow suit with the same strategy. The Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive,” which played in the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever, also went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the film’s soundtrack won The Bee Gees album of the year at the 1979 Grammys.
“I’m trying to call attention to the stuff that was out there that just wasn’t remarked upon,” Mitchell said.
The documentary also analyzes the careers of several Black actors who Mitchell believes didn’t go as far in Hollywood as they deserved. One example is Harry Belafonte, who turned down the role of Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field — which went on to win Sidney Poitier the Oscar for best actor — because he didn’t feel like it was a realistic expression of the Black experience. In Is That Black Enough For You?!?, Belafonte explains that he doesn’t regret turning down the role — and that he purposefully avoided acting in films throughout the entire decade of the 1960s because he wasn’t being considered for the roles he really wanted. Belafonte eventually picked up acting again in the 1970s with films like Buck and the Preacher and has continued to act in films ever since, most recently in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
“At 94, when we shot this, his eyes are still gleaming with fire and magic and mischief,” Elvis Mitchell said of Belafonte. “He still had all that power, he still remembered everything, still had so much to say. Somebody who trained to be an actor, who was built to be an actor, who never got to do it, and who walked away from it. Now, given, he was one of the biggest successes in pop music — he could make a living, I guess. But still, that he decided to not do this thing for 10 years — that’s an incredible thing.”
Is That Black Enough for You?!? is Mitchell’s directorial debut. In addition to Belafonte, the film also includes interviews with Whoopi Goldberg, Zendaya, Samuel L. Jackson, Charles Burnett, Laurence Fishburne, and Billy Dee Williams.
Elvis Mitchell’s film critiques have been published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the LA Weekly, The Detroit Free Press, and The New York Times. The director is also the host of KCRW’s public radio show The Treatment and a visiting lecturer at Harvard University.
Is That Black Enough for You?!? arrives on Netflix on Nov. 11.
Main Image: The marquee at the world premiere of Shaft in 1971 pictured in Is That Black Enough For You?!? Courtesy of Netflix.