Transitioning from the world of criticism to the director’s chair can be a daunting task. Some critics have done it over time, but outside of Peter Bogdonovich, few have stuck the landing. However, few critics approach the medium quite like Elvis Mitchell. Mitchell, a former critic for the New York Times and KCRW in Los Angles, has contributed to projects before. However, Is That Black Enough For You?!? allows Mitchell to dig into his life as a cinephile and a creator. Placing himself and his interviewees between the late 1960s and following films through the next decade, Mitchell captures a scene unlike any other. Few films have showcased the true power of “Blaxploitation” in culture, but Mitchell enshrines dozens of titles for their strength, power, and star-making ability. The resulting documentary wonderfully captures the tone and importance of the era.
Mitchell begins his voyage through black art in the early years of film. While the earliest pictures could stack up against the masters, the avenues and opportunities were not opened for directors of color. Fast forward to the 1960s, and the same issues continued to plague the industry. However, something in the air pushed directors to break through on their own. Truly independent creators, who worked entirely outside of Hollywood, created new stars and heroes for black audiences. The unique phenomenon did not exclude white creators but empowered many forefathers of black cinema to craft their legacy.
Mitchell’s ability to contextualize the influence of Peebles, Parks, Burnett, and Schultz helps the documentary soar. What could have succeeded as a curatorial effort from Mitchell becomes a survey of black cinema on its own terms. He highlights how the films and stars built connections and influenced each other. He gets firsthand accounts of each figure’s role in shaping the industry. Icons like Billy Dee Williams, Glenn Turman, and Harry Belafonte offer firsthand accounts of their life in the industry. Others, like Pam Grier, get their time in the sun. The inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Lawrence Fishburne, and Zendaya shows how the stars of the Blaxploitation era directly influenced the stars of today.
The choice of clips helps maintain momentum throughout the film. Those interested in the history of the medium will find a rich text full of dozens of new features to add to your watchlist. The pacing allows the documentary to create the rhythm of a graduate class in film history and links to the larger narrative of America at the same time. The footage contextualizes its political and social influences. It juxtaposes the framing and shot creation so that you can directly see how future films would rip off these underseen classics. While these films influenced the entire industry, those outside the industry remained unaware of the art being created. Or worse, the artists were buried by the studios.
Mitchell’s film does not contain the urgency of other documentaries but still feels every bit as essential. As the industry moves and changes, the techniques of becoming an indie filmmaker will only grow for those looking to break through. As if you need another reason to catch Is That Black Enough For You?!?, David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh produce the film. The message is clear for any budding cinephile: watch these movies. Understand this era. There are too many great black directors from this era to ignore. If the legacy of film has taught us anything, we can still lift up their voices today, even if they did not get their due at the time.