Is That Black Enough for You?!?

M, 135 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the closing scenes of this impressive, entertaining documentary on Black American cinema, the figure of actor-director Sidney Poitier looms large. He was, of course, the first Black American to win a Best Actor Oscar, and has remained a towering figure in African American movie culture, with an onscreen intensity that is impossible to ignore.

A few years before the 1970s, a time of creative output in Black cinema that is the focus of filmmaker Elvis Mitchell here, Poitier had performed in three mainstream movies that tackled racism and race relations head on. During 1967, To Sir, with Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night, came to the screen in quick succession, and for the next decade Poitier was active, directing and performing in movies of his own. If only writer-director Mitchell, an eminent film critic, radio host and lecturer, had succeeded in convincing Poitier to do an interview before he passed away early this year.

Although Poitier isn’t interviewed, a gallery of other greats are. Actors Laurence Fishburne, Harry Belafonte, Margaret Avery, Zendaya appear, and Whoopi Goldberg, as flamboyant as ever, recalling how in her younger years she would suddenly realise, halfway through, that the movie she was watching didn’t have any Black Americans in it. The representation of minorities at the movies is of course only recent, and still a work in progress.

Actors Samuel L Jackson and Pam Grier are also interviewed. The director Quentin Tarantino so admired these two in the seventies’ Blaxploitation blockbusters that he cast them in starring roles in his own films The Hateful Eight and Jackie Brown.

There is enough material squeezed into this ambitiously and exuberantly staged doco for a three-part miniseries

It is wonderful to see Harry Belafonte in interview. The actor, activist and singer, a contemporary of Poitier, recalls how he refused for over a decade to appear in roles as a token Black, or in films that did not represent the Black community.  It is shocking to hear Belafonte mention that he didn’t use his own singing voice in his role in the all-Black musical feature, Carmen Jones, in 1954. What were the filmmakers thinking?

Richard Roundtree is John Shaft in Gordon Parks’ “Shaft” (1971). Image courtesy Netflix

While there are many moments to remind audiences of the history of misrepresentation of Black America at the movies, including the shameful practice of blackface, this doco is, in the first place, a celebration. A celebration of, as Mitchell puts it, the infectious aplomb and brio of the Black movies that were a success in the 1970s. If the decade 1968-1978 was about anything, it was about the pioneering spirit in filmmaking that gave Black American talent the opportunity to shine.

It would have been great to see more time with the interviewees and more frames from the films, the performances and the soundtracks that are discussed. Is That Black Enough for You?!? would have had even more impact had it been able to expand on the points it makes and linger on the examples it draws from, and had it allowed more time for Mitchell’s interesting observations to resonate. The writing for the narration is particularly fine, but it all rather rushed.

Along the way, Mitchell argues for the influence of Black cinema on plot and character in the 1970s Indie films, and makes fascinating observations about its impact on major box office hits like Rocky and Saturday Night Fever, to which it lent ‘off-white swank’ and ‘Black flair’. And he points out how the crossover seventies’ hits in black cinema, Shaft and Car Wash, showed the way with movie soundtracks topping the charts before the films themselves were barely in release. When Motown was the background to everyone’s life, it was Shaft that saved MGM from bankruptcy.

This is a passion project by Mitchell, a wide-ranging personal essay that carries the subtitle, ‘How one decade changed the movies (and me)’. There is clearly so much to say on a subject that will introduce many audiences to a parallel universe of Black cinema that challenges the canon.

Contemporary Black American auteur filmmakers like Spike Lee, Jordan Peele and Antoine Fuqua, whose Training Day earned Denzel Washington the second, Best Actor Oscar for a Black American, are high-profile today, but change still has a long way to go.

First published in the Canberra Times on 11 November 2022. Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes