Is That Black Enough for You?!?

Is That Black Enough for You?!?

This borders on a disaster. Is it interesting that Ingmar Bergman was so impressed by Glynn Turman in Cooley High that it led him to cast the actor in The Serpent's Egg? Of course it is. And who doesn't get director Elvis Mitchell's point that one of the world's legendary European arthouse directors watched and appreciated a film born from the Blaxploitation boom and lifted an artistic element from it for his own work? It's a good thought on its own. But Mitchell can't help himself: rather than stay on course, he's obsessed with these types of anecdotes and stray observations. And the digressions pile on and pile on, with Mitchell hoping that the deluge of trivia will reinforce central theses. It does sometimes but mostly it doesn't and what we are left with is ugly, undisciplined patchwork. We are very far from something like Los Angeles Plays Itself here.

Similar to Thom Andersen's film, which ends with a thoughtful and specific discussion of the L.A. Rebellion, Is That Black Enough for You?!? finds the same movement for its end punctuation. But where Andersen looks at L.A. Rebellion as a working class response to Hollywood culture by a group of connected Black filmmakers from the South, Mitchell boils it down to a single, apparently contextless work: Killer of Sheep. Here's a sample of Mitchell's narration: "[In 1978] the crowing achievement of the decade came into focus... with an alluring command of medium that would be imitated into the next century...." [Cue clips from George Washington, House Party, and Shutter Island]. One of my least favorite critical activities, one that Mitchell indulges in a handful of times in this: the need to legitimize independents like KIller of Sheep through strained attempts to identify their influence on bigger budget films by known directors.

Another bit of narration that gets on my nerves: "Killer of Sheep demonstrated the potential of the medium by a poet finding beauty in his own neighborhood. And of course he was ignored by the mainstream media." On the first point... um, are you saying there weren't successful films -- even successful Blaxploitation films made at virtually the same time -- that found beauty in the filmmakers' own neighborhoods? Or is it because Killer of Sheep has a bleak neorealist style that it was ignored? Just isn't clear. Why doesn't he bother to mention that Killer of Sheep had a troubled distribution run owed to costly music that was never cleared? I guess facts interfere with the kind of conveniently broad pronouncements Mitchell favors. Not saying Killer of Sheep wouldn't have been ignored anyway, but I don't think you can suggest that a whole era of Black film died basically overnight using the indifference to a single neorealist film as your proof, as Mitchell seems to be doing.

Speaking of the music, Mitchell describes Burnett's "deft" use of it as related to character and setting. I would say Burnett's use is quite a bit more idiosyncratic and abstract than this reductive and rather conventional labeling.

A more specific analysis of the era might have included connections to exploitation in L.A. Rebellion (Jamaa Fanaka), commercial successes following the immediate Blaxploitation period (Penitentiary), or the fact that a director like Charles Burnett later contributed, under commercial constraints and in his own way, to the hood film subgenre made popular by Blaxploitation filmmakers. Mitchell dramatically states that Black films were left to wither and die and yet we know, without confusing two different historical concepts, that there are plenty of outliers to contradict the notion of Black-led films falling out of favor with theatrical audiences. But more crucially and related to the thread Mitchell actually wants to focus on: we know that it wasn't just the Blaxploitation film but the whole Corman class and grindhouse circuit that was coopted by Hollywood and left to wither and die. Difficult to tell whether or not Mitchell understands that making a nuanced point about that would damage the thrust behind the main idea he set us up to follow at the beginning. Maybe he is chasing after something more personal than what historical specificity offers, who knows...

Posters from Kathleen Collins' Losing Ground all the way up to Ava Duvarney's Middle of Nowhere stand in for everything that followed Killer of Sheep, as if putting all these disparate films under the same umbrella of Black Independent Cinema gets us closer to understanding them. Much of Mitchell's film is in this vain, wanting to say something incisive and eloquent, but ultimately missing the mark. Are there some great Harry Belafonte soundbites in this? Yes. But then having Zendaya interviewed to be able to offer Tik-Tokers an identifiable Black celebrity as entry point feels rather cheap. Melvin Van Peebles' Classified X from 2000 did much of the same Mitchell is trying to do with less resources, less need to pander, and more anger and integrity. I'd watch that instead.

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