Review by Sean Boelman
Taking its title from a revolutionary cry echoed throughout the 1970 film Cotton Comes to Harlem, Is That Black Enough For You?!? is the definitive documentary about African-American cinema. A must-watch for any cinephile, it may feel a bit like a lecture — but it is the most engrossing lecture you will ever watch.
In the documentary, film critic and scholar Elvis Mitchell examines the history of Black cinema with a particular focus of its “golden era” in the 1970s, when movies featuring Black protagonists broke into the mainstream. Any cinephile worth their weight is familiar with the Black cinema of this era, but Mitchell’s film is so exhaustive that you are sure to learn something nonetheless.
The movie certainly has a wealth of interviews to pull from, likely thanks to Mitchell’s pull as one of the foremost film critics and scholars in the country. Although many of the filmmakers who were most active during the era are sadly no longer with us, Mitchell interviews many of their children, as well as people who worked with them or were influenced by them.
Any great cinematic essay features extensive use of clips from the films being discussed, and that is a highlight of this movie. From the mainstream to the more obscure, Mitchell has managed to pull clips together from several notable pieces of Black cinema history, making a portrait that feels comprehensive even if it couldn’t possibly mention every single important film.
One of the things about Mitchell’s approach to Is That Black Enough For You?!? is that it dives much deeper than usual into the world of cinema. Of course, Mitchell does talk about the seminal classics like Shaft, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, and They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, but he spends more time discussing the less-recognized but still important movies that have largely been lost to the annals of history.
While the documentary is, first and foremost, an exploration of cinematic history, Mitchell clearly understands and is fascinated with the social aspect of cinema. Many scholars look at art — particularly cinema — as a reflection of the time in which it is made, and Mitchell uses these quintessential Black films to paint a picture of American society in the 1970s as it pertained to the African-American community.
However, Mitchell treads the line nicely, not taking himself too seriously. Even though these movies are important artifacts that represent the time in which they were made, they are also a wonderful form of entertainment. Mitchell’s connection to the films he mentions is obvious, as he discusses the impact they had on him as an African-American teenage cinephile, growing up and watching them.
Is That Black Enough For You?!? absolutely knocks it out of the park as a cinematic essay, exploring film history in a way that is both meaningful and entertaining. It should come as no surprise given how talented of a critic Elvis Mitchell is, but this is maybe one of the best films about film ever made.
Is That Black Enough For You?!? streams on Netflix beginning November 11.