Elvis Mitchell’s Netflix documentary “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is an entertaining, informative look at the era in cinema called Blaxploitation. It features a chronological listing of numerous films from 1968 to 1978, with clips and commentary by Mitchell. It behooves viewers to watch with a pen and pad handy to jot down the wide variety of choices crammed into its 135 minutes. The list includes “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” the 1970 film that gave the documentary its title. Several times in that movie, a character asks, “Is that Black enough for ya?”
Mitchell’s opus was of special interest to me, and not just because its subject matter was a major part of my childhood. For the past year and a half, I’ve been researching Blaxploitation for a project of my own. I wanted to pick the brain of my fellow film critic and historian. Over Zoom, I was able to do just that.
I started with the obvious question: What is your definition of Blaxploitation?
“It’s been a way to address films that used to be called B-pictures to excite the audience,” he told me. “Action films, women in prison films, those kinds of things. But I think, too, it’s also the term used to basically dismiss the movies in the 1970s, as if to say that all Black films in the ‘70s were Blaxploitation films, which is not the case.”
The Blaxploitation era did beget action films and literally titled “women in prison” films such as “The Big Doll House” (rechristened “chicks in chains” films when Roger Corman started making them), both of which occasionally starred the era’s biggest star, Pam Grier. But rather than call Grier’s most famous film, “Coffy,” “an action movie,” or her 1977 biopic with Richard Pryor, “Greased Lightning” “a romantic drama,” they were just “Blaxploitation movies.”
“We’ve talked about this before,” Mitchell said, referring to a chat we’d had earlier at a post-film reception. “Black film has become a genre. It’s not a Black western, it’s a Black film. It’s not a Black action film, it’s [just] a Black film. Also, the idea of glamorizing Black violence and Black sexuality without complexity is a way the term Blaxploitation is often used.”
He cited “Willie Dynamite” and “The Mack,” two classic films about pimps that dispute that notion of constant glamorizing. Both movies end with the hero, in Mitchell’s words, “defeated by the game.” These films were also populated by trained actors like Max Julien (who wrote another film the documentary covers, “Cleopatra Jones”), Diana Sands, and Roscoe Orman (yes, Gordon on “Sesame Street” played a pimp), who brought their acting A-games to these films. Richard Roundtree, the star of 1971′s “Shaft,” was a member of the Negro Ensemble Company.
“If anything, that should make us broaden the idea of what Blaxploitation is,” said Mitchell. “What I was setting out to do was to make people ask questions about the era.”
“What does Blaxploitation mean to you?” he asked me.
“I consider it the same way I consider film noir,” I said. “Noir has many interpretations.” Like Blaxploitation, the line as to what is and isn’t noir is blurred.
“Under that umbrella [of noir], there’s room for much complexity,” he responded. “They go from any number of subjects, including finally ‘Odds Against Tomorrow.’”
“Odds Against Tomorrow” was a 1959 Robert Wise-directed film, considered by some to be the last official film noir. Its star and producer, Harry Belafonte, is a major figure in “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” Before he and his best bud, Sidney Poitier, starred in their 1972 western, “Buck and the Preacher,” they were each offered the lead in 1963′s “Lilies of the Field.” In Mitchell’s film, Belafonte says he refused “Lilies” because the concept of a Black guy in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of German nuns was ridiculous. (Poitier took the role, and won the Oscar for it.)
Since Mitchell’s film begins with a brief history of pre-Blaxploitation-era Black actors in films like “Lilies,” I asked him if he remembered the first time he saw a Black person onscreen. The answer was “Nothing But a Man,” the great 1964 Michael Roemer love story featuring superb acting by Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln. Dixon is a railroad worker who falls in love while dealing with the drunk father who abandoned him. It’s a beautiful film, populated with complex Black characters, which means it was made outside the studio system. Mitchell includes it in his movie. One notable thing: Dixon’s performance is the rare instance of a Black man with a mustache, made seven years before Roundtree glued his fake one on for “Shaft.” Black facial hair was a no-no in the studio system era. It’s a badge of honor in Blaxploitation.
“For me, the difference was seeing Black people with other Black people versus a single Black person alone,” said Mitchell, comparing the movies Sidney Poitier made where he was the only Black person in a situation to the Blaxploitation-era films Poitier directed, ones filled with Black faces. Upon seeing “Lilies of the Field,” a scared, younger Mitchell thought: “When are they going to arrest [Poitier] for being around all these white women?”
There’s such a richness of selected clips in “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” that I had to inquire about the method to Mitchell’s madness. “So many of the scenes I want to pick for this were the scenes I thought should be in compilations of the greatest movies of all time,” he told me. “Billy Dee Williams coming down those stairs [in “Lady Sings the Blues”] deserves to be there. Pam Grier’s long walk to the ocean just before the end credits of “Coffy” belongs in there.”
“And certainly, I wanted to end by showing a compilation of clips that probably haven’t been in movie compilations,” Mitchell said, noting David Gordon Green’s “George Washington” and Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” — “and then showing their point of inspiration being a Black film.” Both films pay homage to Charles Burnett’s 1977 masterpiece “Killer of Sheep.”
I disagreed with the film’s final word on what killed Blaxploitation, so I had to ask Mitchell why he thought the culprit was 1978′s $30 million Sidney Lumet flop, “The Wiz,” the most expensive Black film made at the time. I have much nostalgic affection for it, as do many Black people my age, but I can’t deny it’s a lead balloon of a movie.
“I’m curious about your take,” he said. I thought that the advanced number of Black characters on television, coupled with blockbuster movies like “Star Wars” and “Jaws,” were the reasons for Blaxploitation’s demise. “The Wiz” was just an excuse to finally nail the coffin shut.
“We’re saying the same thing,” Mitchell replied. “[’The Wiz’] became, and I mean this, the noose upon which Black movies were hanged.”
For Hollywood, he said, “It became the easy way of saying, ‘Oh, this one failed. That’s the end of it.’ It was a pitiful excuse.”
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.