clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Hollywood’s Black film problem, explained by Elvis Mitchell

The venerated film critic on the unheralded Black influence on everything from soundtracks to Don’t Worry Darling.

The poster of the film, featuring a Black woman with 1970s-style hair and wearing shades while sitting in a chair.
Is That Black Enough For You?!? is a personal dive into the history of Black representation on screen.
Netflix

Over the past few years, movies like Black Panther and Get Out have raked in both accolades and box office returns, and the Oscar nominations hit new diversity records. To the casual observer, it may seem like Hollywood has made massive strides in moving from being overwhelmingly dominated by white actors, directors, and writers and toward a more inclusive environment. But from the standpoint of history, it’s startling how little has changed — and what that tells us about the industry.

That’s why Elvis Mitchell’s documentary Is That Black Enough For You?!?, which starts streaming on Netflix on November 11, is so revealing. The veteran critic and journalist, a former New York Times film critic, has, among many other pursuits, hosted KCRW’s phenomenal interview show The Treatment since 1996. He brings a wry and curious lens to the history of Black film in Hollywood, weaving interviews with renowned Black actors and filmmakers from Harry Belafonte to Zendaya into his own story. In so doing, he challenges many of the settled ideas about the film canon, Hollywood history, and what it’s meant to be a Black artist on screen.

I met Mitchell at a hotel on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to talk about those matters and a lot more. I wanted to ask him about Hollywood’s claims to inclusivity, about the still-common axiom that “Black films don’t travel,” and about why all of this history is really not so different from today. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A Black man sits behind a movie camera.
Elvis Mitchell on the set of Is That Black Enough For You?!?
Hannah Kozak/Netflix

You say in the film that Hollywood appointed itself “the myth-maker” for the world. Early studio heads saw themselves as the guardians of America’s morality and morale, and the exporters of a message about America to the world.

But as you demonstrate, the story Hollywood told about Black people was often demeaning, and very far from the truth. What kind of an effect does that have on the myth that the country and the world internalize?

I think [Hollywood] was unique to film culture, different from any place else in the world. American movies were made by people who fled [their home countries] under enormous persecution, and then decided to create out of whole cloth this ideal of what America was — this America that they wanted to come to. And the America that they created is still being seen — it’s something popular culture is still responding to.

We noticed as we were putting the movie together that so many of the people on camera — Samuel L. Jackson, Suzanne de Passe, Charles Burnett, Laurence Fishburne — talked about Westerns. The myth became that there was never a Black person on a horse. That would have been empowerment; as soon as you put a Black person on a horse, you’re saying that they have some control over where they’re going, literally, within their lives. We can’t do that.

Back when Paul Thomas Anderson was talking about his film Boogie Nights, he talked about how absurd the idea of a Black cowboy is. So even Paul Thomas Anderson has been kind of rolled under by the idea the movies have created about what cowboys are supposed to be, rather than what they actually were.

So much of Black culture has been about responding to myths created about Black people through various forms of media. That response came from actors as much as filmmakers, because so many of these movies are not directed by Black people. Actors took some claim over [reclaiming the truth about being Black], and that confidence and that brio becomes this really transfixing quality.

But it’s not just about telling America what it is, or what its own history is, but also exporting an idea of America and its history to people who aren’t American. My sense as a film critic is that we still see the reverberations of world perceptions of American Black culture through that influence.

That gets to this message that’s constantly pushed in Hollywood — that Black film won’t sell overseas.

Exactly.

This shibboleth that exists to this very day, one that was constantly fed and cared for, that Black movies “don’t travel.” But think about [renowned Senegalese filmmaker] Ousmane Sembène in Africa, seeing what Ossie Davis is doing [in America], or seeing 1972’s Sounder, and being inspired by that, and creating his own ... I’m not going to say mythology, but his own worldview about Black masculinity. When that’s missing, what does that do to the culture?

It’s very convenient to say, “This stuff doesn’t travel.” Because it’s still this peculiar view of Black culture, even though it seeps in and subsumes everything. When you hear somebody on Fox say “24/7” — that’s hip-hop. They’re terrified by the “fist bump,” but they’ll say something is happening “24/7,” and thus they’re missing the entire point of their argument.

Yes — here Ossie Davis is making films like Cotton Comes to Harlem and Black Girl, with roles in which Black characters can exercise self-determination, and it sparks something for filmmakers because their imaginations are expanded.

At the same time, though, you bring up that Sidney Poitier was, at one point, the number one box office draw, and yet Hollywood executives couldn’t imagine that any other Black actor could also be popular with a broader audience. The thinking is that it’s just Poitier; it’s an exception, it’s an anomaly, it’s just this one guy.

It reminded me of how people talk about huge, massive hits like Black Panther or Get Out today. There’s still a reluctance to greenlight big-budget Black films, because the thinking is, “Oh, well, that was a fluke.”

And what happens? We get a white remake of Get Out, called Don’t Worry Darling.

You said it.

So at the same time, we have to be careful about the way we deal with Black film, because [Hollywood doesn’t think there are] “genres” in Black film; it’s just “Black film.” So when any Black film fails, it is a “Black film” that is failing, not that movie.

I remember when Black Panther came out, I talked to so many people, including Oprah, who said, “This is going to bring in a whole new way of [making] film.” No, it’s not. Because what happens when a film succeeds in a major way? It’s imitated. How many Jurassic World [imitations] have there been since the first Black Panther movie? And now, how many imitations of Black Panther have we seen? The answer is none, because they’re still treated as if lightning struck.

Absolutely. Hollywood loves to make big creature movies, even if none of them hit quite like Jurassic Park. And this goes to something I think about a lot, which is that Hollywood is fundamentally conservative. Often people think of Hollywood as a very progressive, forward-looking industry, but it’s risk-averse and prone to sticking with whatever they know — which becomes a problem when what you know is stuck in some false idea of reality.

Do you think the reluctance to mainstream Black film in the industry is due to failure of imagination, built-in biases that they’d be horrified to be accused of, or what?

How much time do you have? Let’s send out for lunch.

To your point, Hollywood is a community that thinks of itself as being incredibly liberal, except when it comes to exercising that liberal impulse. Maybe they think their liberalism and commerce are two different things, but no, they’re not.

While we were trying to get [Is That Black Enough For You?!?] going, it got shut down by Covid; this was all happening at the same time that the country was reeling from the George Floyd attack, and the responses to that.

Back then, I would get these calls, saying, “So we want to put together this blue ribbon panel to figure out what we can do to make things [in Hollywood] different.” Look, we don’t need a panel. I don’t have time for this. I have three words for you: Hire Black people. It’s as simple as that. And not just one [Black person], but several, so the one person doesn’t have to labor under the burden of having to explain all of Black culture.

Your film feels a little bit like a story about all the people who have been told that something “simply isn’t done” or “just can’t be done.” But when it is done, it’s a wild success — like Melvin van Peebles self-financing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song because no studio would make it, and then it being a huge, era-defining hit. I sort of feel like that might apply to your own film — am I right? I can imagine people saying, “We can’t do this, nobody’s going to watch it, nobody’s going to be interested.”

People in effect said that when they turned down this same material in a book pitch. I thought, oh, this is the kind of thing that could go on a bookshelf next to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, or Pictures at a Revolution. This isn’t esoterica. I’m not talking about a wave of art films.

In fact, these movies are not only enormous successes as movies, but they also created these soundtracks that were enormous successes, and then were imitated in ways that were enormous successes.

People who know and understand film history say, “Why hasn’t this documentary happened before?” I say, “I don’t know. If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody to hear it, is that a legacy?” I mean, this is what this comes down to. I hate to torture a metaphor like that, but if it’s not reported on, then it’s not a legacy — if it’s not examined, if there’s not context offered.

I think a problem is that people get very emotional and defensive when you threaten their canon, their idea of who did what first.

Why do you think this is?

There is this consistent boxing up of Black film culture. It’s this. It’s solely this. It is only this. It is Sidney Poitier. It is Black filmmakers finally getting a chance to work in the 1960s. It’s this thing that Melvin van Peebles has tried to fight his way, and then after that Spike Lee, and Robert Townsend, and so many filmmakers.

One of the reasons I wanted to present the idea of the dangers of canonical thought is that nobody tends to think about blackface in Alfred Hitchcock, in the 1937 film Young and Innocent. I remember seeing that as a kid, and thinking, “Oh my god, there’s blackface in an Alfred Hitchcock movie?” Or there is this idea in canonical thought that 1939 is the greatest movie era in American movie history. Some of us disagree with that.

But it’s accepted as fact, along with the idea that a set of white filmmakers changed film in the early 1970s. There’s truth to it, but there’s more to the story.

They end up feeding into that river of myth. “These filmmakers came and changed everything” — well, they did sometimes, but they didn’t exist in a vacuum.

Getting a chance to see these things on screen, in front of me, might be what’s good about doing this in film form instead of a book. I had honestly never really been struck by the similarities between depictions of Mickey Mouse and minstrelsy, but of course, it was obvious once you showed it to me in the film.

This feels like this innocent thing. In fact, it is not. Or, I’m not going to say it’s not innocent, but certainly there are layers to this that need to be pulled away, so we can see the entirety of it.

Mickey wasn’t keeping on gloves so he doesn’t leave any clues for a CSI team or something. “These are Mickey Mouse’s fingerprints, now we know who killed him.”

Music is really important to this film, and it’s especially interesting to hear about how releasing a soundtrack before the movie’s release — pretty common now — was virtually unheard of before Super Fly.

By releasing the soundtrack [before the movie], and having it be such an immediate success, it created a must-see feeling around the movie. And it was constantly being played. If you drove around LA, you heard the commercial for the release of Super Fly. People respond to these songs, and then go out and buy the soundtrack. It is that rare case where you had people listen to the soundtrack before they saw the movie. So they created their own movie in their head through Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack. And the movie, in some ways, couldn’t live up to that movie they created in their head.

Let’s be honest, those songs are better than the movie. There’s great stuff in the movie, but as a dramatic creation, as a narrative with its own life, that soundtrack is extraordinary. The soundtrack was a huge artistic and commercial success, and every song was released as a single. This isn’t like you’re making A Hard Day’s Night, and the Beatles are already a hit; this is something that becomes a mainstream hit that then propels the movie to enormous success. Shaft followed its example, and it started to happen so much that by the time Saturday Night Fever was coming out, they had the soundtrack out two months before the movie.

Then music videos also started coming out before the movie, and that became the coin of the realm for the ’80s, that the soundtrack was as important, if not more so, than the film. Super Fly did that.

Now that’s all TikTok, 10-second clips. This summer the music from Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis started circulating on TikTok before the movie came out. I’m not even sure people knew what it was from, or that the “Hound Dog” remix was based on an Elvis song.

Every year I’ve been doing this job, and especially when Oscar season arrives, the industry starts touting how far they’ve come in terms of inclusivity — the whole #OscarsSoWhite issue having pushed it recently. That is, frankly, embarrassing, when you actually look at who gets jobs and who wins awards.

Here’s the example. Suzanne de Passe was nominated for Best Original Screenplay in 1973 [for co-writing Lady Sings the Blues]. How many other Black women have been nominated since that, in that category? None.

So when people would say to me, “Are you afraid this documentary’s going to seem dated?” No.

My fear is that it will never seem dated. In the film, Zendaya says, “It’d be great to see Black kids playing together on camera, or to see more Black people in a sci-fi fantasy.” Was that going to seem like old hat by the time this movie came out? No.

It’s weird to show this history to young people and have them go, “God, nothing has changed.” This is the thing that I wanted to try to find a way to deal with, too: Every decade we hear about this “resurgence in Black film.” But where did it go? It didn’t go anywhere; it just wasn’t being covered.

To your question, maybe in some fundamental way things have changed, but it’s still about trying to wrest some control of this narrative. Certainly, the visibility of the phenomenon may change, but Black women aren’t getting opportunities to write movies. It’s as simple as that.

It would be fun to say, “Well, god, in the three years since I’ve started working on this, so much has changed.” No.

Is That Black Enough For You?!? premieres on Netflix on November 11.