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Elvis Mitchell’s Netflix doc “Is That Black Enough For You?!?”

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Now on Netflix, the invigorating documentary “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” borrows its title from a line in the 1970 hug “Cotton Comes to Harlem.” This film was not the culmination of the ongoing cultural revolution. But during a particularly rich decade, 1968-1978, black representation finally got its foot in the door of a powerful white film industry. Stories of more than one kind of black image and experience, made independently and then, because there was money in it, mainstream and funded by studios, found their way into theaters. It’s critic-writer-director-animator Elvis Mitchell’s love letter to this decade.

It tells a collective story of long frustrated and marginalized talent finally getting some breaks. Many of the key players were well established (Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte), others younger and less polished. Many too were dazzling and unique, gone far too soon (Diana Sands at 39, Rupert Crosse at 45).

The Netflix project, produced by Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher among others, finds Mitchell speaking directly about films that helped shape his childhood, adulthood and vocations. He’s particularly good at the subject of deathless, peerless theme songs and soundtracks associated with everything from “Shaft” to “Superfly.”

Mitchell doesn’t even try to stick to his chosen 10 years. In “Is That Black Enough For You?!?” Samuel L. Jackson, among others, talks about growing up watching old movies featuring bit players and occasional sidekicks like Willie Best doing their cartoonish, menial, and humiliating thing in Bob Hope movies. . Still, these actors got Jackson thinking about acting for a living. And maybe dream of better opportunities.

Cleverly edited and constructed for speed, the documentary takes a look at the legacy of pioneering silent and sound filmmaker Oscar Micheaux; mid-twentieth-century breakthroughs for Poitier and Belafonte; and early ’60s indies such as “Nothing But a Man”. In 1968, as Mitchell points out, white singer Petula Clark, on her television special, touched black guest Belafonte on the arm. The resulting outcry was not small. Meanwhile, the streets were on fire and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy marked America’s political future.

Hollywood responded with more of the usual, but also with a risk or two that opened the door a little wider. Low-budget, high-yielding hits like “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” “Shaft,” “Superfly” (all hail Curtis Mayfield’s score) and many more meant times were changing. All the same, says Mitchell in voiceover, the white-led industry meant that “successful black people in the media were often treated as the equivalent of finding a $100 ticket on the subway – an unrepeatable phenomenon.” .

Later, Mitchell crystallizes a perspective that I find both succinct and provocative, a new way of looking at 70s cinema in all its post-Watergate rumination. While white men (including leader Gene Hackman) reveled in brooding, bittersweet studies of stasis and despair, Mitchell argues that “film noir redeemed the ideal of heroic protagonists” in “Shaft,” “Coffy” and many others. Then came “The Sting” and “Jaws”, among others, to claim happy endings for white people. Also, “Rocky”. Curiously, Mitchell doesn’t even bother to deal with “Star Wars,” which changed everything in the industry a year later. And not for the better. Well, that’s for another, preferably unlicensed project.

If nothing else, Mitchell’s smooth, conversational documentary should draw a little more attention to historical markers that are forever in need of new champions, such as the one-of-a-kind ‘Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One’ (1968). . Or Charles Burnett’s delicate 1977 classic, “Killer of Sheep,” filmed on the streets of Los Angeles from Burnett’s Watts landscape. “A poet who finds beauty in his own neighborhood” is how Mitchell puts it. His celebration of these movies is seriously entertaining.

“Is that black enough for you?!?” — 3.5 stars (out of four)

MPAA Rating: R (for nudity, some sexual content, language, violence and drugs)

Duration: 2h15

How to watch: Now streaming on Netflix.

Michael Phillips is a reviewer for the Tribune.

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Twitter @phillipstribune

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