The title of Elvis Mitchell’s super examine of black American cinema is taken from Ossie Davis’s 1970 Blaxploitation buddy cop comedy Cotton Involves Harlem, based mostly on the Chester Himes novel, a couple of bale of cotton found in Harlem, of all of the unlikely locations: a bale which hides misappropriated money and is in fact a satirical image of oppression. Totally different characters wisecrack: “Is that black sufficient for you?”, riffing subversively on authenticity within the energy wrestle.
With a dense and interesting mass of clips and interviews with figures within the films resembling Whoopi Goldberg, Zendaya, Samuel L Jackson and Laurence Fishburne, Mitchell fights again towards cultural erasure and amnesia: there’s a wealthy and vivid historical past of African American cinema which blossomed in Hollywood’s pioneering golden age, however was siloed in designated “negro” cinemas. (Martin Luther King is proven reminiscing about them.) Mitchell remembers unsung, or insufficiently sung, heroes of black moviemaking resembling Oscar Micheaux, the primary nice African American film-maker who was an unbiased inventive powerhouse from the silent age onwards.
To look at this documentary is to be taken by Mitchell via the political looking-glass (although extra Philip Okay Dick than Lewis Carroll) into an alternate actuality unguessed at by the white mainstream. Right here there are black individuals on display screen, who usually are not essentially the servants or comedian buffoons, however heroes, villains, lovers, youngsters and oldsters. In a shrewd flip of phrase, he says that this black Hollywood is a “de facto underground financial system and tradition”.
From the golden age and the battle, Mitchell takes us onward to the period of the counter-culture and civil rights, the rivalry between Harry Belafonte (who refused to take stereotypical roles) and Sidney Poitier, who grew to become white Hollywood’s acceptable face of African American stardom. Mitchell begins by questioning if Poitier was a little bit of a sellout in comparison with Belafonte, however concludes with a beneficiant tribute to his endurance and prolific later profession as a director. Muhammad Ali was an inspirational determine and a cultural bridgehead for black tradition, and the explosive power of black music was one other propulsive issue as black films started to launch their soundtrack albums earlier than the movies opened, as a promotional instrument. After which got here the wonderful golden age that got here to be often called Blaxploitation, a surge of well-liked cinema with which black audiences might establish, that includes unforgettable stars resembling Pam Grier and Richard Roundtree and brilliantly entrepreneurial film-makers like Melvin Van Peebles and William Greaves.
Mitchell makes the fascinating level that Blaxploitation was reviving old style verities of characterisation and storytelling, simply because the white New Hollywood was questioning them. Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman had been taking part in nervy anti-heroes who didn’t know what to make of the world. However there have been additionally African American stars resembling Billy Dee Williams who revelled of their masculinity and old style handsomeness.
However then Blaxploitation got here to an finish. Why? Mitchell wonders if the monetary calamity of The Wiz, the all-black reimagining of The Wizard of Oz, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, had one thing to do with it; or whether or not the issue was the brand new Reaganite conservatism which additionally put the brakes on the American New Wave.
Both manner, Mitchell leaves us to ponder that as that is the place his movie ends: he seems to be forward to film-makers resembling Julie Sprint, however his movie focuses on the Seventies, with out making that the specific topic of the movie. What of the a long time to come back? Is there a distinctively black tradition there to be rediscovered or reclaimed or reinvented? Mitchell makes that query the purpose of entry for everybody contemplating this. An absorbing and nourishing documentary.
Is That Black Sufficient for You?!? is offered on 11 November on Netflix.