The new Netflix documentary from film critic and historian Elvis Mitchell Is that dark enough for you?!? rewrites a false narrative about black cinema that has kept it on the fringes of film history rather than front and center where it belongs.
“There’s this thing where black culture exists as an underground phenomenon,” Mitchell said during a Q&A Saturday after the film screened on the opening day of the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, which takes place on Saturday. runs from October 22-29.
Black cinema is anything but underground. Instead, Mitchell argues, black cinema “ends up being the water in the well that grows all these other things and never, as you know, gets their due.”
To illustrate his point, Mitchell – who wrote, directed, produced and narrated Is that dark enough for you?!? – combs through dozens of pieces of black cinema released during the boom period between 1968 and 1978, referencing films featuring black actors that set the stage for trends that later manifested in films featuring white actors.
“When I saw Saturday night fever when I was a kid, like maybe in high school, my friends and I were just like, “This is Tree.’ You can not [see it] and not see this moment,” Elvis Mitchell said.
In Is that dark enough for you?!?, Mitchell shows the opening scenes of both Tree (1971) and Saturday night fever (1977) back to back, and the similarities between them are hard to ignore – they each feature Richard Roundtree and John Travolta, respectively, in costume, marching down the street to the beat of similar songs. Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and also won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1972. Mitchell maintains that after Tree and other black films of the time proved that film soundtracks could generate excitement if they were released before the film, only then could films featuring white people like Saturday night fever follow suit with the same strategy. “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gee, which played in the opening scene of Saturday night feveralso went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the film’s soundtrack won the Bee Gees’ Album of the Year at the 1979 Grammys.
“I try to draw attention to the things that were out there that just didn’t get noticed,” Mitchell said.
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The documentary also analyzes the careers of several black actors who Mitchell says didn’t make it as far in Hollywood as they deserved. An example is Harry Belafonte, who turned down the role of Homer Smith in Field lilies — who went on to win Sidney Poitier the Best Actor Oscar — because he didn’t feel like it was a realistic expression of the black experience. In Is that dark enough for you?!?, Belafonte explains that he has no regrets about turning down the role – and that he deliberately avoided acting in films throughout the decade of the 1960s because he was not considered for the roles he he really wanted. Belafonte eventually returned to acting in the 1970s with films like Buck and the preacher and has continued to act in films ever since, most recently in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
“At 94, when we shot this, his eyes were still shining with fire and magic and mischief,” Elvis Mitchell said of Belafonte. “He still had all that power, he still remembered everything, still had so much to say. Someone who trained to be an actor, who was built to be an actor, who never got to do it and walked away from it. Now, given that he was one of the biggest hits in pop music – he could make a living, I guess. But still, that he decided not to do this for 10 years, it’s an incredible thing.
Is that dark enough for you?!? is Mitchell’s directorial debut. In addition to Belafonte, the film also includes interviews with Whoopi Goldberg, Zendaya, Samuel L. Jackson, Charles Burnett, Laurence Fishburne and Billy Dee Williams.
Elvis Mitchell movie reviews have been published in the Fort Worth Star Telegramthe THE weekly, The Detroit Free Pressand The New York Times. The director is also the host of KCRW’s public radio show The treatment and visiting lecturer at Harvard University.
Is that dark enough for you?!? hits Netflix on November 11.
Main image: The marquee at the world premiere of Tree in 1971 illustrated in Is that dark enough for you?!? Courtesy of Netflix.