‘Is That Black Enough for You?!?’: In insightful doc, expert traces the history of Black film

On Netflix, Elvis Mitchell demonstrates the importance of Blaxploitation and how the innovations of Black films influenced the movies made for white culture.

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Former film critic Elvis Mitchell directed and narrates the documentary “Is That Black Enough for You?!?”

Netflix

“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is the best kind of history — insightful and educational, and also entertaining.

Former film critic Elvis Mitchell wrote, directed and narrates the documentary, now streaming on Netflix. It’s a freewheeling romp through the history of Black film. Mitchell really knows his stuff. He also knows how to present it.

It’s a personal journey — and all the better for it. Mitchell brings his enthusiasm, curiosity and knowledge to bear on more than two hours of clips and interviews with Black actors and directors. Even if you think you know a lot about Black film, Mitchell likely knows more, and you’ll walk away wanting to fill the gaps in your viewing experience.

‘Is That Black Enough for You?!?’

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Netflix presents a documentary directed by Elvis Mitchell. Rated R (for nudity, some sexual content, language, violence and drug material). Running time: 135 minutes. Streaming now on Netflix.

One of the common misconceptions about Black film, Mitchell explains, is that it didn’t really begin until the middle of the 20th century or so, when Black directors finally got a shot at making movies.

In fact, Black film existed nearly from the start of filmmaking. These movies were simply kept out of mainstream theaters, relegated to segregated movie houses, meaning white audiences didn’t see them. They never got the audiences they deserved.

Mitchell spends much of his time in the late 1970s to the late 1980s, when Black film flourished, making a good case that what are typically thought of as Blaxploitation movies actually showcased a growing power in the industry and the culture for people of color (a power that, sadly, would not last).

But he also looks farther back. Interviews with Harry Belafonte are especially compelling — the actor basically sat out several years of his career because he wouldn’t accept stereotypical roles he believed were beneath him.

Mitchell likens him to Muhammad Ali refusing to be drafted during the Vietnam War, his stance costing him some of his most fruitful years, perhaps, but also allowing him a hard-won moral high ground.

It’s for that reason Belafonte passed on “Lilies of the Field.” Sidney Poitier took the role instead, and became the first Black man to win an Oscar for best actor.

“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is filled with nuggets like that, which Mitchell weaves into a larger story of art as empowerment — but also falling victim to bigotry and exploitation.

Among the best segments are those that show the unexpected influence of Black film. The opening of “Saturday Night Fever,” for instance, is rightfully famous, as John Travolta struts through New York as the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” plays.

Mitchell splits the screen — a technique he uses often for comparison — to show Richard Roundtree at the beginning of “Shaft,” strutting through New York as Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme song plays. The scenes are remarkably similar.

“Saturday Night Fever” came out in 1977. “Shaft” came out in 1971.

Another influence: Black films often released the soundtrack before the movie, to stoke interest. White filmmakers got the message — and again, the “Shaft”-“Saturday Night Fever” comparison is apt. It’s fascinating, the kind of thing you feel like you should have known but probably don’t.

Interviews with Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L. Jackson, Billy Dee Williams, Laurence Fishburne and many others are insightful — they talk not just about their experience as artists, but about the importance of seeing people of color, people who looked like them, on screen when they first started going to the movies. It wasn’t necessarily a frequent experience, but when it happened, it was impactful.

You’ll want to take notes while watching; Mitchell introduces a lot of films you’re going to want to see. “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” ultimately does what the best films like this do: make you wish there was more.

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