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​Elvis Mitchell Asks ‘Is That Black Enough for You?!?’

Cinema | December 15th, 2022

By Greg Carlson

gregcarlson1@gmail.com

Veteran critic Elvis Mitchell’s excellent documentary/essay “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” gazes deeply and lovingly at the rich and varied historical contributions of African American film artists, focusing especially on the vibrant and tumultuous 1970s. Extending beyond Blaxploitation to consider the complete cinematic spectrum from independent productions to the output of the major studios, Mitchell’s guided tour is every bit as indispensable as “A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.” Like that sprawling 1995 gem, Mitchell’s work comes from a place of intense cinephilia and personal knowledge. If you can’t live without the movies, “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is one of the year’s essential experiences.

The film’s home on Netflix follows an October premiere at the New York Film Festival, where Mitchell and producer Steven Soderbergh engaged in a conversation moderated by NYFF executive director Eugene Hernandez. During that discussion, Mitchell says that at one point he pitched the project as a book and was subsequently turned down by every major publisher. Fortunately for viewers, the artifact that ultimately came to fruition brings to bear the very same storytelling tools of sound and vision that the director highlights through dozens of electrifying movie clips and choice music selections.

As the festival program points out, Mitchell’s approach is both “personal and panoramic.” “Is That Black Enough For You?!?” consistently finds the right tone and balance even when one wishes certain movie titles, filmmakers, or performers were afforded more time on the screen. The vibe is so fluid – in terms of quantity and quality – you’ll want to frequently pause, rewind, and review the incisive assemblage. One imagines scores of wannabe directors feverishly scribbling notes and making to-see lists while Mitchell lays out one astonishing lesson after another.

The talking-head subjects, including Harry Belafonte, Samuel L. Jackson, Charles Burnett, Whoopi Goldberg, Zendaya, Antonio Fargas, Billy Dee Williams, Glynn Turman and others, follow Mitchell’s lead by outlining their own relationships to hallmark movies and silver screen gods and goddesses. Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Pam Grier and Richard Pryor are better known by mainstream (read: white) audiences than Rupert Crosse, Diana Sands, Sheila Frazier, Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln, but Mitchell seamlessly transitions among assessments of these talents and others without skipping a beat. The expert curation makes you feel like you are at a party where our generous host is making warm introductions to old friends.

With editors Michael Engelken and Doyle Esch, Mitchell illuminates dazzling and enticing moments from too many films to name in a short review. “Nothing But a Man,” “Save the Children,” “The Education of Sonny Carson,” “Cornbread, Earl and Me,” “Abar,” “Watermelon Man,” and “Ganja & Hess” are just a fraction of the total. In one example of Mitchell’s brilliance as an educator, the lasting influence of Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” is presented in side-by-side diptychs, a terrific technique also used to great effect this year in “Lynch/Oz.” Mitchell returns to the device to mark the way that the opening strut and swagger of “Saturday Night Fever” cribbed from “Shaft,” illustrating just how much big-budget fare for white audiences borrowed and stole – Mitchell goes with “expropriated” – from Black cool.

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