Elvis Mitchell’s “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is a heady look at the explosion of Black American films that ran from the late 1960s through the ‘70s. Not just lurid and politically charged titles like “Coffy” and “The Mack” and “Shaft” and “Super Fly” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song,” but elegant star vehicles like “Lady Sings the Blues” and coming-of-age stories like “Car Wash” and “Cooley High,” as well as family epics like “Sounder” and “The Learning Tree.” Mitchell swirls hundreds of movies into a cocktail and leaves your head swimming, casually recontextualizing a cinematic movement.
Over the course of 135 minutes, Mitchell implicitly flushes the word “Blaxploitation” down the toilet. It’s always been an inadequate, insidiously ghettoizing term. If a rich period of creativity and expression is “exploitation,” what was the corresponding period of cinematic freedom for white audiences during the 1970s, with the movie brats and the counterculture, whitesploitation? What we’re talking about is a New Black Wave.
I don’t want to reduce “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” with words like important and representative. We use those words too much in modern culture. Self-conscious progressivism is starting to look like a different form of artistic limitation. A pressure to be important has a way of straitjacketing the imagination, a pressure that the films of the New Black Wave seemed to casually transcend, even despairing and provocative movies like the underseen “Nothing But a Man,” which Mitchell references here. Take “Black Panther” since it has a sequel coming up. It is eaten up with its status as, well, it’s not the first Black superhero film or even the first Black Marvel film. Right off the top of my head there’s Wesley Snipes in three “Blade” movies, and Snipes, especially in “Blade II,” has a sexy swagger that connects him with the protagonists of the New Black Wave and shames the earnestness of many contemporary “issues” films.
As a white guy it is easy for me to say this of course, but frank, dirty, funny, and disreputable have always felt like more progressive qualities to me than speechifying, clearing the air of taboos that divide us. Just ask Sidney Poitier, who was saddled with squeaky-clean role model status for years and tried to break free of it in movies like “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Buck and the Preacher,” both of which he also directed. Movies are a sensual, kinetic artform, and white folks are allowed to take that for granted. Giving the late Chadwick Boseman a pedestal worthy of him felt progressive, but calcifying him in nobility did not—he’s greater as James Brown in “Get On Up,” which taps into his style and flair for comedy, than as Black Panther. (And Coogler’s “Creed” is a far livelier and more progressive movie than “Black Panther.”)
Mitchell never compares the New Black Wave to what’s going on in Black America cinema today. He allows you to infer for yourself. And no doubt my inferences, as a white guy in his early forties, are different from those of a Black intellectual 20-some years my senior. Mitchell grew up in Detroit and saw the social unrest of the late 1960s directly, as well as the domination of white culture in cinema then and now. In a matter of minutes, Mitchell vividly links the racism of early studio movies, and the social suppression they represented, with the civil rights movement and the New Black Wave. Mitchell strips us of the distancing of hindsight and allows us to feel the surge of expression and freedom that the New Black Wave embodied.
Part of that freedom is the ability and willingness to be vulnerable, personal, eccentric, or in questionable taste. In short, human. When’s the last time a movie, aimed at Blacks or whites, had a sex scene like the bathtub scene in “Super Fly?” Mitchell includes footage of it, and even in abbreviation it raises the temperature in the room. Dialogue, in both the hip Black and white movies of the 1970s, was franker, coarser, and funnier than you’re likely to encounter in movies today. Some of it is racist, some of it is sexist, but people in real life don’t talk in sociopolitical bullet points—no matter how much modern tastemakers may try to condition us to censor ourselves. Actually a few people do talk in P.C. fortune cookies, and they seem imprisoned by self-consciousness, more interested in following the rules than connecting with other people.
The title of Mitchell’s film comes from a running joke in Ossie Davis’ “Cotton Comes to Harlem.” The title interrogates the fraught subject of racial identity and suggests a kind of secret code. For white audiences, the New Black Wave suggests an entryway into an inaccessible world; for Black audiences, it probably suggests an evening of the ledgers, allowing Black artists to commandeer a medium that often marginalizes or demonizes them. Aesthetically, “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is a traditional essay doc—a mixture of talking heads and archive footage. That ordinariness allows the extraordinariness of the subject matter to pop.
- Courtesy of Netflix
- Harry Belafonte
Mitchell interviews many legends, most notably Harry Belafonte, who stepped out of American cinema until it was willing to offer roles worthy of him. (Mitchell mentions Belafonte’s classic performance in the scalding noir “Odds Against Tomorrow.”) Most poignant here is Billy Dee Williams, still spry and stylish at 85, expressing wonder at the movie star-lighting he received for “Lady Sings the Blues.” That sort of reverence used to only be accorded to white actors. To see Williams in “Lady Sings the Blues” is to wonder why the role isn’t more iconic, and why he’s predominantly known in white circles for “The Empire Strikes Back,” where he steals scenes from Harrison Ford. There’s a wonder in Williams’ voice that may sync up with our own as we watch Mitchell’s doc: How the hell did these movies manage to exist?
“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” drops on Netflix a week or so after the publication of Quentin Tarantino’s “Cinema Speculation,” a book of film criticism that is, unsurprisingly for those familiar with Tarantino’s work, predominantly devoted to violent, 1970s genre films. It is revealing to compare the two works, which each reference the other author. Mitchell is concerned with macro social dynamics and the evolution of Black image in culture, while Tarantino, a white guy enthralled with Black culture, is more obsessed with how genre tropes inadvertently express deeper social fissures. These works, which are both very personal and very worthwhile, underscore just how much more vital movies once were. “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song” couldn’t exist these days for its title alone.
Mitchell never explicitly connects the New Black Wave with the movies of today, although he shows how creative forms of Black marketing came to influence movie marketing at large, including the prioritizing of the soundtrack album. He also shows, via “Saturday Night Fever,” “Rocky” and others, how Black cinema influenced white ‘70s movies. Watching footage of even weaker tea productions from the era, one is reminded of how the global market has effectively neutered American cinema. It must now revel in cartoonish generalities and easy messages, while resisting the tangy specifics—pertaining to sex, money, comedy, and all-around human absurdity—that make a movie a movie.
My resistance to modern issues films is driven by their willingness to treat characters of color as symbols rather than as humans. Mitchell avoids this trap in “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” He honors the poetry, style, outrageousness, and poignancy of the New Black Wave, rooting it in his own consciousness, his narration providing a backbeat to the imagery. Global capitalism and domestic monopolies, which have destroyed, among other things, the theaters willing to show movies that are neither prestigious nor blockbuster-bound, screwed us over. In too many fashions to recount here.
Yet personal movies still persist; what we’ve really lost is a sense of community. Seeing a movie on streaming isn’t the same as facing a crowd in the theater, however annoying it may be. Splintering of community and splintering of self are some of the concerns of “Something in the Dirt,” the new sci-fi whatsit from the promising filmmaking duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Benson and Moorhead also star in their film, as Levi and John, neighbors in an apartment complex who come to believe that…I saw the film last week and my mind is already going blank. Something about aliens or asteroids and a conspiracy to do something. The point is that Levi and John are lonely, barely employed, and very much in need of a project to govern their lives.
Think Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi” crossed with Richard Linklater’s “Tape” and “The X-Files” crossed with the original “Unsolved Mysteries” crossed with a slacker comedy and you’re close to the vibe that Benson and Moorhead are going for. They get major points for indie inventiveness, as it may take you a while to notice that they’ve managed to stage an alien conspiracy movie entirely in a single nondescript apartment.
Benson and Moorhead’s images have an intimate intensity, with quicksilver montages suggesting the rattled dudes’ escalating thoughts. The arbitrariness of the “clues” is creepy and suggestive of the characters’ desperation. A love story develops—one of them is asexual, the other gay—that neither man can face. This subtext sneaks up on you. The escalation of their relationship from neighbors to detectives to celibate lovers is assured and haunting. And this relationship, coupled with their overriding obsessive project that nurtures it, suggests a metaphor for Benson and Moorhead’s filmmaking partnership.
At a certain point, I wanted the sci-fi, bric-a-brac to recede so the relationship could breathe a little. Granted, you’re not supposed to directly register the relationship. If Benson and Moorhead ever got caught striving for pathos, the subtle, subliminal effect of “Something in the Dirt” would be diminished. Yet I got tired of watching these guys chase symbols and trace property maps and fake FX for their documentary (the filmmaking metaphor becomes explicit in the film’s second half).
You know that Levi and John aren’t going to prove anything, that this is all bullshit, yet “Something in the Dirt” follows them for two full hours as they chase their own tails anyway. That’s the intentional design of the film, which is to say that Benson and Moorhead recreate the sensation of being talked to death by nerds. You know how annoying it is when people corner you with an hours-long summary of a TV show you’ve already told them you don’t watch? “Something in the Dirt” is the cinematic equivalent of that. Yet it’s singular. It can’t be dismissed.
“Is That Black Enough for You!?!” drops on Netflix this Friday. “Something in the Dirt” is now playing in limited theaters and will be streaming later in the month.