Film connoisseur, cultural critic, and master conversationalist Elvis Mitchell crafts a kaleidoscopic yet personal history of Black cinema with his feature film debut Is That Black Enough For You?!? Both a personal reflection on the power of representation and a celebration of entrepreneurial independent filmmaking, it has just wrapped a short festival run and is now in limited theatrical release before its Netflix debut on November 11—where Mitchell recommends the film as a companion to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, releasing the same day.

The Film Stage: I had seen your film on Saturday night at the Montclair Film Festival and really loved it. It’s such a personal work and I wanted to ask about growing up in Detroit, seeing the films you chronicle here, and how that informed your vast career. 

Elvis Mitchell: It’s hard for me to grasp being personal just because I want to get as much information in as possible. I am trying to tell a history I thought that was as pertinent as anything else. But it is personal because there were points people were saying, “Well, you should be in it.” And I said, “No, if I write this the way I want to, then the voice in the narration—in the storytelling—should tell as much about me as anything else.” I’m glad you picked up on that. And it’s Detroit, but it’s also going to visit my grandmother in Mississippi and hearing her take on this world and the kind of insidious effect that the absence of Black presence in any position of power or controlling one’s own destiny was lacking from those movies for such a long time. And I think for her she just washed her hands of it. 

But for me, just getting that common-sense perspective that she had to offer informed both me and the way I made the film. So it becomes not only a story about me, but about my family too. So it is personal and it is about seeing movies in all those places. But it doesn’t matter where you see it. If you’re not on the screen, you’re not on the screen, and you still end up absorbing that and reflecting on that in some way just because there’s a constant. And it’s what Zendaya says in the movie—it makes sense. You have people of an older generation talk about what was missing, but to have somebody who’s really a child of the 21st century say, “You just want to see kids who look like you playing onscreen. You want to see yourself in a science-fiction fantasy movie.” It’s the 21st century and things still really haven’t changed that much in a lot of ways.

You’ve interviewed so many wonderful creatives on The Treatment and in print. You’ve written books, essays, great cultural criticism, and now your first film. Can you tell us about making your feature-film debut and any help or mentors you had in making that transition?

My mentors, in a way, were a lot of movies I saw, and wanting to make a movie commenting on those things and also wanting to make movies that would keep that conversation going. In real terms, I’m lucky to have Steven Soderbergh, who always had this confidence in me––this unshakable and what-I-thought-delusional confidence in me. His understanding of what it is that movies have to offer is unique. He’s somebody who brings a rare historical understanding of what film can do and what film has done. So often his films are about invoking other eras in contemporary times. It’s 25 years now since Out of Sight was made, which brings in Nicolas Roeg, but also a little bit of Godard and Elmore Leonard, which is not the kind of place you’d expect to see those kinds of things.

That idea—of pulling in elements that might seem incongruous—was something I thought about, because that’s the way he works: to use things that you would not associate with a certain genre. Then it makes you understand what the rudiments of the genre were, but also what it is that he wants to say about these things. And so in making this documentary, just having the example of what he’s done, but also having him say things like, “Don’t be afraid of movie moments,” which is something I don’t find myself looking for.

In the clips that we use, they have this majesty and also make anybody [realize] these are such spectacular moments in movies. Why haven’t they been quoted in other films before? That becomes this kind of subliminal thing about how Black film is so disregarded that it’s not considered to be on the same level in that pantheon of great movie moments, which is the kind of institutional racism.

You find these parallels in film history and in the culture––particularly the contrast between Shaft and Saturday Night Fever. Many of these films were so groundbreaking that we can lose sight of how influential they were in their crossover appeal.

As somebody who does this kind of thing, you can’t talk about one movie without talking about the associations it has with other movies—especially in the era in which we live. Movies are constantly quoting movies or books or all kinds of other things. And I thought that would give me some license to sort of not-so-strictly keep to the chronology of ’68 to ’78, because you can’t talk about the period without, in some way, reflecting on what led up to that.

It doesn’t have to be the entirety of movie history. I got to cherry-pick and select moments that I thought were illustrative rather than being encyclopedic. I wanted to allude to things in some cases and move on, hoping that my excitement would be translated into the filmmaking process. That’s still my job because—and I’ve said this before—I just want this movie to be this constant popping of firecrackers, 100 every few minutes or so.

I’m glad you got a chance to see it in the theater because so many of these are big moments that should be quoted more often in film than they have been. I wanted to make sure that it felt like there is a kind of size and scale in these moments that match anything you see in what we call “mainstream filmmaking.”

I want to kind of go back to the roots and talk about Oscar Micheaux. I was at the Academy Museum this summer and to see him have a larger space than D.W. Griffith—who we think of as the father of so many classical-editing and other storytelling innovations—was a powerful curatorial choice.

You have to mention Micheaux, of course, because he’s the best-known. I also have in the movie Spencer Williams, who has this beautiful scene—and I can talk about this scene forever—that crowd of churchgoers that congregate moving towards the camera. You can very suddenly see the pastor kind of directing them with his hands toward the camera.

There are so many beats like that in cinema that connected back later on to The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings because, like the Negro leagues, Williams and Micheaux had to produce movies, find the money to make the movies, make the movies, write the movies, direct the movies, edit the movies, sometimes star in the movies, sometimes do the music for the movies. Then after all that was done, go out and find theaters and then get the word out in these communities that these things were happening. That’s the demand that wasn’t made by somebody like D.W. Griffith. Pretty soon into it he was co-founding United Artists and there was already an infrastructure that existed for mainstream film that didn’t exist with Black film.

In fact, in a lot of ways, it still does not. You had to dig up money and then try to find theaters in these little towns. Micheaux, Williams, Noble Johnson, and so many other people couldn’t get their movies into the main theaters owned by the studios because [the studios] didn’t want any of that, even though these movies were proven to draw audiences. One of the key moments in the film is that astonishing clip of Dr. King talking about going to see second-run movies a year after they were released. If you want to see a studio movie, he would have to wait. Been living in a Black neighborhood for a year until they finally turned up. Goodness knows what condition those films must have been in.

It seems almost similar to the experience Melvin Van Peebles had with releasing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which was chronicled in his son’s retelling of that period several years ago.

Melvin recognized that if you’re making a Black film there’s a certain way it’s going to be covered. The kind of pat on the head, “Isn’t this great? He made a little film, that’s so sweet.” Also, he had been in the studio system, so he understood how tough it was to get attention for Black films—even presumably with the marketing muscle of a studio behind you.

Although they really get behind Watermelon Man so much that they decide to go out and do what he wanted to do, which is to control every aspect of it. This, again, takes us back to what filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux were doing: he was at a point where he recognized that if he made it into a kind of a social and cultural phenomenon, then it wouldn’t be covered as just a Black film.

By saying that it was rated X by an all-white jury, he’d basically played the system. He did so beautifully, and then the movie becomes about that. It was rated X by an all-white jury who never saw the movie. So it doesn’t matter because when you say X people just kind of go “oh,” but also it becomes this way about claiming Black sexuality in a way that had never been claimed before. There’s also nothing else like it. This kind of existential social satire with a hard bop score by Earth Wind & Fire.

I teach film history and I have shown it to my class.

And how do they react to it? What do they say when they see it?

I had to preface it as “this is a call to revolution.” They went wild for it. Dolemite, too—I showed that to my class last summer.

It wasn’t a Dolemite because Dolemite is a movie that doesn’t know what it is from scene to scene. I mean, it’s so peculiar. As much fun as Dolemite Is My Name is there’s nothing that can prepare you for the experience of seeing Dolemite. And we had one of my heartbreaks. I got to know Rudy Ray Moore a little bit because when I was doing one of the vast number of jobs you talked about, I was a film critic on a show called ABC News World News Now, which is the overnight show.

And lots of comedians would see it—including Rudy Ray Moore. When I met him he knew who I was. And so I got to know him. And one of the reasons I wanted to do this is to tell these stories of how he worked in burlesque dancing with a woman who changed her name and is better-known as Maya Angelou. And about what it was like to sort of hustle to get those movies made and about the groundbreaking aspect of doing that kind of profanity on record, which hadn’t been done before.

There’s one clip that’s one of my favorite things to see, of all-time, on a big screen when he’s walking away from the camera with a shower curtain with credits overhead. That’s having to grab the bull by the horns and invent as you’re in motion because it’s cheaper to do that than to have to pay somebody to do graphics for you and make credits. So much of this movie is about having to seize opportunities where you’re not allowed that opportunity. And then kind of luxuriating in the audacity of the gesture.

You do point to a specific film, The Wiz, that proves to be the end of an era. It seems like whenever something works in Hollywood they say “we want more of that” until they start to misread what the audiences want.

The Wiz was a pretty sizable Broadway success, but to do it in the way that it was done—which is to say to do The Wiz and miss the point of The Wiz—takes a lot of work, nd apparently a lot of money to realize. And just for me, hiring the guy who did Serpico to do a musical about Black people… “Can you get the guy who did Dog Day Afternoon to do this musical for us about the Black experience in the church?” “Yeah, let’s do that.” And so they did that. And it’s this movie that falls between so many stools. On one hand, there’s something kind of fascinating about it and encouraging because it is a big studio bet on Black film and betting on a piece of IP that has proven itself not just for Black audiences, but for Broadway audiences.

So the supposition was: this thing will work. You can’t help but wonder in an alternative universe what would have happened if The Wiz had become a success. What would have happened to Black film after that? And instead it doesn’t. And it sends that message because it happens so often in Black culture, especially in TV and film. Once the one fails and people kind of go, well, they just don’t want to see themselves anymore. And it’s that danger of reductive thinking that there is just a genre that’s Black film. If you make a Black western, it’s not a Black western––it’s a Black film. You make a Black romantic comedy, it’s a Black film.

So if that fails, it can take the whole genre down with it. And what nobody said was: we shouldn’t overspend on a musical directed by the wrong person. All Black movies are kind of lumped together and the successes are not enough to really be a balance against the failures. That’s the unfortunate part about all of this.

So where do you see this going now? I look at the seismic shift around MeToo and the idea that Hollywood is course-correcting and representation in front of and behind the camera appears to be more critical.

I think in the abstract. This is all cyclical and it’s all a pendulum. The correction leads to an overcorrection in the other direction. You can see any number of pieces now about, in the five years since the wake of MeToo, people wondering how much has really changed. You see Louis C.K. went and won an Emmy after he’s come out and did a mea culpa for his behavior and then walked away from that apology and went back to what he does and then to be rewarded by people’s wonder. And I’ve said before that when it comes to Black film, it seems like every decade their back is up.

They didn’t go anywhere. Yes, but they’re back. You can see in the ’80s: it takes until 1986 when Spike Lee does She’s Gotta Have It. And then the following year, Robert Townsend—35 years ago this year—made Hollywood Shuffle, which are two movies that also made the story of their production about marshaling these resources to make the movie.

And then Spike talks about doing everything but depositing soda bottles to help pay the negative costs of getting the movie made. And then Townsend talked about doing something that gave independent film a new lease on life, which is to fill out credit-card applications and maximize it to pay for things. They couldn’t afford to buy people. They couldn’t afford catering people and to have food on the set, but he could buy everybody gas. Those stories then end up leading to a whole new kind of explosion of independent film and these filmmakers—like Oscar Micheaux and Melvin Van Peebles—tend to not get the respect for what they helped to create.

My real hope is that in addition to an explosion of film by Black talent, there are also some people in decision-making positions––not just in production, but also in marketing and key areas to distribution, because if those in distribution say we can’t make this movie because they can’t sell it, then it doesn’t get made. There can’t just be one are. There’s got to be Black talent given a chance in all of these areas. Then we also see what I hope is a great kind of cultural intermarriage of all these talents and ideas that will make this about, finally, more than just film by enforcer and ethnic group.

It is like Ron O’Neal says in the movie: we apply it to. Superfly played for 20 weeks in Boston. The fact is there’s a hunger for stuff that people want to see.

It seems exhibitors these days are opening up more opportunities. Post-COVID, there’s a lot more need to fill screen space at the multiplexes, leading to more international and indie films playing. So I’m somewhat hopeful you’ll see more chances given to all filmmakers to go theatrical, and we’ve seen some films slated for streaming move to theatrical. 

It is so interesting. Whenever there’s a time of fear it tends to be a time when people want to have fewer chances. People now looking for movie stars, we have to ask ourselves: is the era of the movie star over? Who is the movie star who consistently draws audiences to movie theaters under 30?

And that’s the big question. We know that IP well. It doesn’t matter who’s playing Batman with the exception of, apparently, George Clooney. So that becomes a driving force of Spider-Man. On the other hand, because the sequel is imminent, we have the example of Black Panther, which did enormously well and completely over-performed on expectations.

And generally, when that kind of phenomenon happens, what is the result? A bunch of copies. How many movies like Black Panther featuring Black youths have we seen since that movie was released? The answer is not many and not enough. So talking about how much things haven’t changed, the huge successes are still considered to be sort of sweet, generous, and not something that can be repeated.

I think it’s encouraging that The Woman King is doing very well at the box office. I also just listened to your interview with Gina Prince-Bythewood the other day on The Treatment.

She’s got a bunch of great movies. You thought that 20 years ago, if you’d seen Love & Basketball, one thing you could say is she can stage action. Clearly she knows what’s going on. She’s staging action with emotional momentum on the basketball court. It took her almost 20 years ago and an action film to then finally get the movie that she wanted to make.

A big example of this is Tyler Perry, who literally built a studio following his instincts and making movies for an audience that he knew was not being served. And if that audience was hungry enough for it and the product existed, the mainstream will follow Black audiences into his tent. And this happened.

Are there any emerging filmmakers you’re particularly excited to watch in terms of their career, and maybe the inheritors of this history?

Shaka King comes to mind, who got his start doing a tiny movie at Sundance. And then he did that terrific movie last year [Judas and the Black Messiah]. Then Daniel Kaluuya wins the Academy Award for the movie and then H.E.R. wins the Oscar for Best Song. It’s a movie about politics and Lakeith Stanfield talked about what a torture it was to make that movie and to bend himself into knots, trying to figure out a way to play that guy that didn’t eat his soul. It took 40 years to get made. I had to swallow hard to take 23 years to do mine until I hear that. We still live in a situation where the exception doesn’t prove the rule. The ’70s make people think “Oh, that’s an exception.”

Do you have any final words for viewers that’ll be seeing this film on Netflix in the coming weeks?

If you can see it in the theater, please do that. We’re on Netflix on November 11. So after walking home from your third screening of Wakanda Forever, you want to ask yourself how these things get made, what is its history? Where does it fit into the history of cinema? Then you can watch Is That Black Enough For You?!? on Netflix. I’m hoping that’s what people do.

Is That Black Enough For You?!? is now in limited release and arrives on Netflix on November 11.

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