Elvis Mitchell has been one of America’s great critics, interviewers, and pop culture historians for over 25 years, and with his new Netflix documentary, “Is That Black Enough for You?!?,” he proves he’s a world class filmmaker as well. An engagingly personal yet rigorously analytical and completely original crash course in ’70s cinema, “Is That Black Enough for You” covers all the important actors and filmmakers lily-white New Hollywood retrospectives like “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” left out: Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Melvin van Peebles, Diahann Carroll, Diana Ross, and so, so many more. As Mitchell told IndieWire, there was one clear advantage to his past as a journalist: “When I teach film, I always say there used to be two reasons to go to film school, to have access to films and to have access to equipment. So I had one of those things going for me. I’d seen lots and lots and lots of movies and asked myself questions about those.”
Mitchell took cues from his grandmother when it came to finding a focus for his material. “She taught me to ask the questions that weren’t being asked, to look for what wasn’t there, and to wonder why it wasn’t,” he said. “And that really informed how to make this movie, which is to say ‘What wasn’t there? What should be here? What are the things that weren’t said before?'” With the help of producer Steven Soderbergh — who gave him support and advice throughout the process — Mitchell found that the new tools at his disposal gave him a fresh way of looking at the movies he knew and loved. “The great thing about going to work with a production company is you realize you’re surrounded by people who want to do what you want to do. They want to make a movie that can be as good as possible. I mean, there may be differences of opinion, but nobody’s trying to subvert what I’m doing. Everybody was on my side to help me to do this. That made things enormously pleasurable. And just learning what adding a piece of instrumentation could do, or complete silence or a fade rather than a crosscut or to do a diptych, just having possibilities open to me, it felt like I was actually seeing movies for the first time.”
Listen to the entire discussion below or read on for excerpts from the conversation.
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The viewer feels like they’re experiencing the movies for the first time too, thanks to Mitchell’s insightful approach to both forgotten films and filmmakers as well as their canonized counterparts. His section on Cleavon Little, the star of “Blazing Saddles,” is particularly eye-opening. “That performance has such elasticity,” Mitchell said of Little’s performance as Sheriff Bart. “He goes from being the foil to the straight man, not only in the same scene, in the same shot. I mean, that is as cagey a piece of work and as understated a piece of work as I’ve ever seen in movies. I mean, that whole thing where he stages his own kidnapping and he’s making fun of a convention, but not making fun of the character. You’ve got to believe that he’s playing both these things well. It’s a performance where you’re aware of his awareness of where he is both in this story and in the conventions of, of satire.”
One of the writers of “Blazing Saddles,” Richard Pryor (who was slated to play Sheriff Bart until the studio refused to insure him), is another subject of “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” Though Pryor was an electrifying stand-up comic, the movies he made rarely utilized his talents to their full extent, which Mitchell blamed partly on Pryor and his choices. “What did Balzac say about greed being the purest of motives? [Pryor] could make a lot of money doing [bad comedies],” Mitchell said.
Yet “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” shows that when given the right material, as in Paul Schrader’s “Blue Collar,” Pryor could hold his own on screen alongside heavy hitters like Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto. “It’s a Paul Schrader movie, which means that the best scene in the movie is the scene of their misery after this night long of debauchery. Not the orgy itself, but what they’re left with after. Pryor’s fear and resolve about what to do are combined in that in a way that you are actually watching him in a shot with two of the most powerful actors of the ’70s, and you’re paying attention to him as an actor in a way you often didn’t.”
“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” also takes a fresh look at actor-director Sidney Poitier, giving credit where credit is due for the way Poiter reinvented himself in the 1970s. “In 1968, he’s the biggest box office draw in the world,” Mitchell said. “Two years later, just because of politics, he’s completely irrelevant. He’s made fun of in the pages of the New York Times for not being cool enough. What does that do to you? And rather than give up, he understood who and what he was. He understood what Black audiences wanted, and he did this thing that I think this era is about, which is to say you offer people something that movies in this country have always been about, which is a kind of heroism. People respond to that. And so he’s the hapless hero in “Uptown Saturday Night,” but he’s still heroic. American movies, unlike films on other cultures, have always been built on this myth of heroism, and he understood that by playing around with that but still offering it, that the audiences would respond to him.”
Little, Pryor, and Poitier are just a few of dozens of fascinating subjects covered by Elvis Mitchell in “Is That Black Enough for You” and this week’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. Listen above for more insights, observations, and recommendations. The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher.