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Is that dark enough for you?!? Explain:

“What happens to a deferred dream?
Does it dry
like a raisin in the sun?
…Or does it explode?

These lines were written by Langston Hughes in his poem, Harlem (1951). This poem seeks to capture the dream of racial equality and at the same time comment on the harrowing experiences of the black community living in the United States, particularly in Harlem. So it makes sense that Elvis Mitchell, the writer and director of the Netflix documentary, Is That Black Enough For You?!? (2022), takes up these famous lines to introduce the decade 1968-1978, a historic period of black cinema. Mitchell has etched for us a cinematic essay that takes its time – about 135 minutes in total – to weave together the sociocultural and political premises for us to understand Blaxploitation, a subgenre of exploitation films in Hollywood in the 1970s.

He immediately shows us how his grandmother had his dreams transformed into stories by the cinema. But the portrayal of black people in films at the time was either completely absent or confined to typical servant, villain and cartoon caricature roles. It progresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age to the ’70s period not so much chronologically but with a hint of personal-style history lessons. The goal is to help audiences understand that the art produced for the screen was rooted in mimicking real-world perceptions of the black community and, therefore, the poignant racial injustice and inequality suffered by black people or the African American community. in particular, at the hands of white Americans. For example, he states that his grandmother had to struggle with the image of this black stereotype to define her as a woman of color from Mississippi as they worked their way into the public subconscious. This led to her banning him from watching reruns of The Andy Griffth Show (1960-1968) on the grounds that there were no black characters. This decision to mix the personal and the political in this documentary prevents it from becoming a boring history lesson.

The writing is exquisite. Speaking about the laid-back stereotypes of black men in Hollywood cinema when they found representation, he says, “If you were a black actor, a black bow tie didn’t put on the ritz. It meant you were going to work. It was your uniform. He goes on to state his aversion to tuxedos or a “well put together ensemble”. The second half of the film falls into a congruent form, becoming more streamlined once it exposes the complex web of intra-personal stories that governs the history of black actors in film. It focuses on the career trajectories of black actors as they rose to prominence by nurturing or opposing white populist notions. I had also started counting the number of films that might have ended up in the finely edited structure of this video essay, but soon realized that the count threatened to go through more than 50 films in 70 minutes. So I put down my pen to simply enjoy the brilliance of the show.

Mitchell slowly turns his gaze to the decade 1968-1978, the period of black cinema that would shake up Hollywood and redefine the representation of the black community in popular culture, for better and for worse. He goes on to talk about Blaxploitation, one of the many pop culture motifs of the 1970s film noir revival.

Blaxploitation: A Brief History

The term blaxploitation is a mixture of the terms “black” and “exploitation”, the former meaning the ethnic group of African Americans belonging to the United States and the latter a category of mostly B-grade movies that appealed to popular trends. Junius Griffin coined the term in 1972, a year after the theatrical release of the films Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song to define this subgenre of films.

The films were stylistically marked by their generous use of zoom shots, grainy film, and a sepia-tinged color palette. These were, after all, low-budget productions. These films were also defined by the liberal use of violence and nudity in their plots, making most of them suitable for consumption by adult audiences only. Mitchell’s documentary spends a good few minutes exploring the scene in Gordon Parks’ Shaft (1971), which redefined how the camera viewed the black protagonist. Instead of glancing sideways at a well-dressed John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree), the camera looks directly at him and doesn’t hesitate to follow him down a crowded street. It has, according to him, revolutionized the course of films.

Is that dark enough for you?!? Elvis Mitchell in Is That Black Enough For You?!?. cr. Hannah Kozak/Netflix © 2022

Additionally, most of these films broke with the tradition of using European-inspired musical scores and instead captured the live voices of black musicians, jazz artists and performers to produce a holistic experience so essentially rooted in the 70s that it was hard to look away. Pam Grier, the legendary actress, helped subvert the role of black women in these films by starring in characters that made her appear assertive and resolute. Some blaxploitation films have also sought to explore the roots of slavery as well, for example Slaves (1969) by Herbert Biberman. While most people believed that blaxploitation films were a statement of empowering the black community in the face of white supremacist thought, there’s no denying that they stereotyped the black protagonist as a pimp and their community as a hotbed of the crime and drugs.

Why did the Blaxploitation end?

According to film historians and cultural analysts, the era of blaxploitation films ended in the late 1970s, making Disco Godfather (1979) one of the last blaxploitation films to be released during the decade. In this documentary, Mitchell questions whether Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz (1978), an all-black reimagining of Frank Baum’s famous novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), coupled with freshly germinated conservative Reagan sentiments, might have been the reasons behind his untimely demise. Furthermore, films began to receive more and more criticism from audiences and critics for exaggerating stereotypes of the black protagonist (sometimes the anti-hero) to such an extent that they became mistaken cultural markers of the black identity. The subgenre, however, did not die out completely. Stylistic elements of blaxploitation films and their popular actors, such as Samuel L. Jackson and Pam Grier, have continued to feature in films since the 1990s. These films were primarily parodies of the subgenre and sought to explore stereotypes in a comedic way while carving out better portrayals of the black community in the scripts.

What is the meaning of the title ‘Is this black enough for you?!?’

The title of Mitchell’s documentary is derived from the film Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) directed by Ossie Davis. The entire film somehow finds a way to return to the line, “Is that dark enough for you?” to make a sarcastic remark about the power equations in the film’s narrative. Moreover, the film’s background score – an orchestra of voices – continued to sing the phrase to drive home the point of this oblique look at the reality of the black community so conveniently excluded from mainstream media. Mitchell’s documentary, which also seeks to shed light on the history of black representation in cinema, particularly through the period of the 1970s, takes on this title as a nod to the movement.

Final Thoughts on Is This Black Enough For You?!?

The documentary is powerful in the way it chooses to engage audiences in a date with black history. He doesn’t just talk about the injustices suffered by the community, but he goes on to talk about how slowly cinema has embraced black people in their own element, focusing on them as round characters instead of painting them in a sad mimicry of the white imagination. . The narrative is interspersed with interviews of legends such as Whoopi Goldberg and Harry Belafonte with a much younger modern artist, Zendaya. The goal is to highlight the collective voice of the black community and their ideas about black representation. It propels us into the future of black representation and leaves us thinking about how to do this better. It is a kaleidoscopic study of the black community in film and an attempt to reclaim the whiteness-drenched Hollywood cinematic canon. This is one of the best cinematic essays I’ve experienced on the same subject to date.

Read more: Orgasm Inc: The OneTaste Story (2022) Netflix Documentary Explained

Is that dark enough for you?!? Trailer

Is that dark enough for you?!? (2022) Documentary Links – IMDb, rotten tomatoes
Where to watch Is That Black Enough for You?!?

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