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Elvis Mitchell Takes a Deep Dive on Black Cinema With Netflix Documentary



As a critic and scholar, Elvis Mitchell has spent his career writing about film. With the doc Is That Black Enough For You?!?he tried his hand at making one himself.

The documentary, which will screen at AFI Fest before heading to Netflix on Nov. 11, is part visual essay and part academic deep dive into the Black cinema of the 1970s and the contribution of Black filmmakers and creatives to that decade of moviemaking. An achievement in archival work, the doc, which counts David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh as producers, deftly moves through works by Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks Jr. and Sidney Poitier and films including Blacula, Shaft and Coffee, among a dizzying amount of others. “For audiences quick to dismiss or asleep to the contributions of Black filmmakers,” THR‘s Lovia Gyarkye wrote in her review, “this is required viewing.”

Ahead of his AFI Fest bow, Mitchell spoke to THR about filming in shuttered movie theaters mid-pandemic, interviewing Harry Belafonte and not interviewing Poitier.

This doc was originally conceived as a book that was rejected by publishers. Given that it’s an underwritten subject, did they give you a reason for the rejections?

The reason that came from publishers was “No.” There was no further explanation. I don’t think I ever got “No, thank you.” Just “No.” It was puzzling to me because I thought it fit into the critical and social analysis that we were getting from books, like those that Mark Harris [Scenes From a Revolution, 2008] has done. And also to offer this point of view about Black culture that is rarely seen in these kinds of books — if ever. So, if you’re asking me why people said no, your guess is as good as mine. A lot of the film is the things I wanted to do with the book. Obviously, it had to be shortened enormously, but I also got the advantage of being able to use the scenes from the movies. What I’m also hoping for is that people are inspired to go and seek these movies out.

A shot of the Palms Theater in Detroit during the summer of 1971.

A shot of the Palms Theater in Detroit during the summer of 1971.

Courtesy of Netflix

How did the idea end up as a documentary?

As I talked about the book, some people would say, “It sounds like a documentary.” For example, I’ve talked to Steve McQueen about it, and he goes, “Well, the way you described the connection between Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone and Isaac Hayes, that would be a great thing to show.” I thought about it and was bouncing the idea off people and hearing reactions. When I was talking to Steven Soderbergh about it, he just said, “It sounds like a good documentary to me. I’ll produce it.” The next thing I knew, we were shooting the interview with Harry Belafonte that’s the spine of the piece, and Steven’s the cinematographer. What’s also been happening over the course of wanting to do the book is that people would start passing away because they were older subjects. I met Diahann Carroll, and she said, “Well, this sounds great. Let me know when you’re ready to go and I’m happy to be on camera for you.” And she died the day we were shooting Harry Belafonte.

After writing and interviewing people about movies for your entire career, how was the transition into making one?

It’s interesting because as we were shooting and cutting some things together, [I would] have some sense of embarrassment, thinking, “This is a little too much flourish.” Both Steven and David Fincher went, “Why are you going to cut that? That’s a movie moment.” And I would go, “Oh, so you do this stuff on purpose?” That really freed me up, the idea that I can use the medium. All these things I’ve tried to observe and pay attention to are all things I could do. Rather than being cowed by it or intimidated by it, you just say, “Well, if I were making a movie, how would I do this?” Oh, wait, I am making a movie.

Whoopi Goldberg sits for an interview in Elvis Mitchell's documentary Is That Black Enough For You?!?!

Whoopi Goldberg sits for an interview in Elvis Mitchell’s documentary Is That Black Enough For You?!?!

Courtesy of Netflix

Poitier and his work during the 1970s concludes the film, but you didn’t get a chance to interview him. Why end the movie with him?

I would ask him to do interviews in other venues, and he would talk for about two hours about why he wouldn’t be interviewed, and I was like, “We can just record this!” [He responded]: “No, young man, let me tell you why.” And then he’d tell me all these astonishing anecdotes, all of which were off the record, about things that he’d experienced. I can’t think of anyone else in the film with his narrative. He went from being somebody fighting to get into movies to becoming a movie star to the biggest movie star in the world, and then two years after that being irrelevant because of social changes and having to reinvent himself. His story is too much a part of that decade not to include in the documentary in some way.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issues of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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