Tracing the topography of Black cinema is daunting. For about as long as the movies have existed, Black Americans have been making them, which means there’s well over a century’s worth of productions to consider on their own merits as well as their influence upon the medium’s development. That’s a time-consuming enterprise, belabored by the unfortunate but unexpected fact of Black erasure from cinema history. The movies as we know and love them today wouldn’t be without the contributions of directors and actors like Oscar Micheaux, Ossie Davis, Charles Burnett, Pam Grier, Gordon Parks Jr., Sheila Frazier, William Greaves, Melvin van Peebles, and too many other names to name.
Film critic and historian Elvis Mitchell names them. His documentary Is That Black Enough For You?!? accomplishes a monumental task: Putting these artists in conversation with each other. These conversations are both indirect, in that they don’t talk to one another on screen, and direct, in that they talked to each other in their heydays as colleagues, collaborators, and friends—and that their movies talked to one another, too, each film, each performance, building off of each of the films and performances came before. This being true for all art and culture, it might seem obvious for Is That Black Enough For You?!? to state the same about Black cinema’s arduous journey from A Fool and His Money to The Blood of Jesus, Miracle in Harlem to Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, The Story of a Three-Day Pass to Cotton Comes to Harlem, Super Fly to Killer of Sheep. Of course these movies all inform each other. That’s just what movies do.
But Is That Black Enough For You?!? emphasizes, repeatedly over its two hour runtime, that the cycle of Black cinema, in which Black directors and actors add to their canon by recognizing, honoring, and expanding on their forebears’ work, is propelled by the urgent need for representation. The films that Mitchell highlights (and he highlights quite a few more than the eight listed above) don’t exist simply for their own sakes. In part, and arguably this is a predominant part, they exist as proof that Black Americans exist, and that Black experiences are real, from the good to the bad to the worst. To see Tuck shot by Sheriff Kirky in The Learning Tree, or Cornbread by Officers Atkin and Golich in Cornbread, Earl, and Me—and both of them in the back for that matter—is to see Black experience at its most tragic, its most shocking, its most final.
Today, these scenes hit with sad familiarity. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought more police murders of young Black men to mainstream attention. Though not enough to keep upholders of white supremacy from denying that the police do casually execute Black people for selling loosies while sparing white gunmen in the middle of their mass shooting sprees, this still has had the effect of adding weight to these already-horrific images. You can beat your fists against those killings now. In 1968 and 1975, the years in which The Learning Tree and Cornbread, Earl, and Me enjoyed their respective premieres, Tuck’s and Cornbread’s callous slayings snatched the breath from Black audiences.
Mitchell narrates in his rich baritone, taking his own audience back through the past, not only to appreciate the circumstances and struggle Black cinema has come from (and appreciate where it’s at in 2022), but to witness the incontrovertible proof of its appropriation by the movie industry through the decades. Independent film is the invention of Black filmmakers; swagger, what we see John Travolta wield walking down the street in Saturday Night Fever’s opening credits, is the spirit of Black actors like Grier, Richard Roundtree, Ron O’Neal, and Billy Dee Williams; ingenuity and innovation are best exemplified by Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, whose metatextual qualities are impressed on the movies of Brian De Palma, Steven Soderbergh, and even Abbas Kiarostami, who, though not an American director, nonetheless saw and was forever changed by Greaves’ vision.
Citing those individual directors and actors inspired by the inventions of Black cinema isn’t the same as accusing them of cultural theft. If anything, underscoring the ways that Black cinema has helped shape movies outside of its own sphere is complimentary both to the movies affected by Black voices as well as to the voices themselves. What Mitchell does so successfully is point out how the industry writ large responded to the achievements and resourcefulness of its Black participants: By learning lessons from them, weaving them into studio productions, and in the process blinding people to Black artists’ essentiality in film’s evolution. Genre-blending, for instance, the much-beloved pastime of directors like Edgar Wright, was conceived by Black independent filmmakers who had to jam together different styles because they only had enough money to make one film: Instead of a murder mystery and a comedy, they made a combination of the two.
This is the kind of historical context that film writing, and media education as a whole, often lacks: The knowledge that cinema has transformed over the years because of Black filmmakers, to seismic, form-altering effect. Mitchell’s thesis and conclusion in Is That Black Enough For You?!?, abetted by interviews with Glynn Turman, Williams, Burnett, Laurence Fishburne, Frazier, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Suzanne De Passe, Whoopi Goldberg, Harry Belafonte and then some, gives his viewers a reason to pause and think about the movies they like, that they hold dear, and realize what those movies would be without these figures—and at the same time, encourages us all to recognize how Black artists continue to impact cinema today.
Director: Elvis Mitchell
Writer: Elvis Mitchell
Starring: Glynn Turman, Billy Dee Williams, Charles Burnett, Laurence Fishburne, Sheila Frazier, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Suzanne De Passe, Whoopi Goldberg, Harry Belafonte
Release Date: November 11, 2022 (Netflix)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.