"They've Gotta Have Us" could have made history, if it weren't missing so much of it

The docuseries on Black cinema from Ava DuVernay's Array is stylish, but problematic in its scattershot approach

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 5, 2020 6:35PM (EST)

Diahann Carroll, Barry Jenkins, Nathalie Emmanuel, Cuba Gooding Jr, Jill Scott, and John Boyega (Simon Frederick/Array/Netflix)
Diahann Carroll, Barry Jenkins, Nathalie Emmanuel, Cuba Gooding Jr, Jill Scott, and John Boyega (Simon Frederick/Array/Netflix)

"They've Gotta Have Us" dropped Wednesday on Netflix, five days before the debut of #OscarsSoWhite 2, otherwise known as the 92nd Academy Awards. A person unfamiliar with the streaming service's promotional style might wonder if someone there weren't intentionally shading Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters, telling something about their choices and this year's criminal snubs.

After all, consider that the shot launching the series' opening credits is that of Lupita Nyong'o accepting her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in 2013's "12 Years a Slave." Nyong'o is one of several Black actresses who was favored to get an Oscar nomination for her performance in fellow Oscar winner Jordan Peele's "Us," but did not.

Reliving the moment of her win contains the emotional parallel of pride and slight bitterness, and it makes a point simply by existing and reminding the viewer of what has been, and could have been.

Placing "They've Gotta Have Us" into circulation with such specific intent, however, would require some evidence of strategy on Netflix's part, and – with regard to the three-part docuseries itself – a knife edge's sharpness and irrefutably cohesive message, and a close eye on editing. How disappointing it is to report that "They've Gotta Have Us" lacks these qualities; it leaves a person desiring to see more, but only because of what we don't see.

The Netflix debut of "They've Gotta Have Us," a late acquisition by Ava DuVernay's distribution collective Array, coincides with the start of Black History Month, and this realization makes its shortcomings particularly regrettable. One glaring misfire pops up in those very same opening credits. Seconds after Nyong'o's triumphant Oscar moment hits us comes some passionate insight about Black cinema from . . . Jussie Smollett.

Smollett is listed by British producer and director Simon Frederick as one of the biggest names in Black cinema, and I suppose he is free to make such choices. The former star of television's "Empire" is indeed highly quotable and as most of America knows (for very much the wrong reasons) he can be a compelling storyteller. However, he's less of a force in film, and far less of an influence than, say, Michael B. Jordan or on the U.K. side of things, Idris Elba . . . neither of whom appear in "They've Gotta Have Us."

And this is the series' indefensible flaw, one that a person with even a passing knowledge of cinematic history would find difficult to ignore.

The shame of it is, something like "They've Gotta Have Us" is a project very much worth undertaking. Frederick does score some gems here; among the series' topmost victories are interviews with some of Black cinema's greatest legends including Diahann Carroll and John Singleton, both of whom died since participating in the 18-month-long production.

Others like Earl Cameron,who 100 years old at the time of his interview, offer a personal perspective on navigating racial prejudice in the earlier days of Britain most Americans wouldn't otherwise be aware of. Their interviews, along with a prominently featured and candid Harry Belafonte, give the viewer a sense of the tremendous possibility of a series like this.

 "The adventure of being Black in the movie industry is a curious path," Belafonte says near the start of "They've Gotta Have Us. " "Most actors don't have the problems that people of color face when dealing with the denials of the art in the face of politics, in the face of social taboos."

Frederick goes some distance to demonstrate that truth. But telling the story of Black cinema's impact in America and the U.K. is as complex and multifaceted a task as the Black experience in these nations – too much for the most skilled of producers to adequately filter and examine in three hours' time.

Frederick is a self-taught artist, photographer, filmmaker and broadcaster, and while that doesn't preclude him from doing extraordinary work, his relative inexperience may be one of the reasons for the scattershot approach of "They've Gotta Have Us."

The flipside of this is that his artistic flourishes are among the few aspects that largely work in the project's favor. Interview subjects sit on a cube within a caramel-colored set, and at certain points Frederick projects snippets of a film on the walls behind them, which in some cases augments the emotions of the insight he or she lends. The series also illustrates some anecdotes with cheeky, humorous animated passages that are a welcome break from stretches of interviews and reminiscence.

None of that ultimately mitigates its problem of stuffing too many elements of history into too small of a space. And in touching on many topics but only substantively granting insights into a few of them, the finished product comes across as unfocused and incomplete.

 "They've Gotta Have Us" is most effective in its simplest choices, such as a recurring motif  in which Frederick shows a graphic indicating a film's production budget set against what it made at the box office. Part of what Frederick does well is touch upon several versions of the debate over who gets to tell our stories, and filmmakers such as "Eve's Bayou" writer and director Kasi Lemmons and "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins have some thought-provoking insights to offer in that regard, as does Delroy Lindo.

To hear "Hollywood Shuffle" writer, director, and star Robert Townsend recall the extraordinary bootstrapping effort required to bring his film into existence, let alone to market, slackens the jaw and nets some well-earned laughter.

The real kicker, however, is to see that a film Townsend paid for with credit cards and acting gigs, putting him $100,000 in the hole (in 1987 dollars no less) went on to gross more than $5 million at the box office.

Frederick scores a terrific storyteller in Townsend as well as Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, and a few other heavy hitters featured heavily across its three episodes. A section highlighting David Harewood, David Oyelowo, and the always charismatic John Boyega discussing the rise of Black British actors in America and the parallel criticisms of the so-called Black Brit invasion could have been is own episode.

Ditto for segments uplifting the contributions Black women directors and producers have made to cinema as a whole. Frederick gets bonus points for interviewing and featuring the work of Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed "Love and Basketball," and diving into the seminal importance of Julie Dash's 1991 masterpiece "Daughters of the Dust," the first full-length film directed by an African American woman to obtain wide theatrical release in the United states.

 "They've Gotta Have Us" also features Carroll entering the frame to talk about her relationship with Sidney Poitier, who did not sit for an interview, before the series discusses her contribution to the industry's history, including her Academy Award nomination for her work in 1974's "Claudine."

You can't make a docuseries about the history of Black Cinema, even one painted with the broadest brush, without mentioning the significance of certain figures, living or departed, such as Poitier, or Carroll, or Belafonte or Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar for her performance in 1939's "Gone with the Wind."

Frederick checks these boxes as well as the indulging in the obligatory and necessary hailing of the dual triumphs of Peele's 2017 blockbuster "Get Out" and the international success of Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" in 2018.  Nevertheless, he also downplays the role of important figures in Black cinema and omits some altogether while including some real head-scratchers like Smollett.

And while it's unrealistic to expect an exhaustive list of all of the actors and directors who contributed to Black cinematic history, there are a few who really should be included in a series like this whose absence is very much noticed.

Honestly I love Jill Scott, who makes an appearance near the end of the series' closing third episode, but by the time she showed up I couldn't help wondering why she was there while Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, and Octavia Spencer, all of whom are Academy Award winners or nominees, receive nary a mention. (Spencer, at least, appears in a clip from the 89th Oscars ceremony when she was nominated in the same category as eventual winner Viola Davis.)

They're not the only ones left out or breezed on by, either. Far from it.

Dorothy Dandridge receives a share of her due owing to her starring role in the 1954 classic "Carmen Jones," while the late Lena Horne, a cinematic icon by any definition of the term, gets a quick shout-out from Nelson George, but that's pretty much it. Josephine Baker, an American actress and the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, 1934's French film "Zouzou," isn't referenced at all.

Halle Berry was the first African American woman to win a Best Actress Oscar for her work in 2001's "Monster's Ball," yet you would not know that from watching this series. She appears but briefly in a clip from a past Oscars ceremony.

Notice, these are all women I'm mentioning here, each of whom in her own way offers a doorway into conversations about the double standards and obstacle Black performers and filmmakers face, the notions to which Belafonte refers in his quote. And there comes a point at which these omissions start to feel like erasure, particularly when viewed in the context of who Frederick chooses include.

"They've Gotta Have Us" devotes a significant chunk of space to praising the careers and contributions of Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington, and rightly so. Washington is considered to be one of the finest actors of our time, a multiple Oscar nominee and a two-time Academy Award winner. Murphy is comedy royalty and one of the biggest box office draws of the 1980s.

And yet there's barely any discussion of Samuel L. Jackson, who appears only in the context of disparaging the trend of casting Black British actors in roles that he opines should be played by Black Americans.  As I said before, Frederick is free to make such choices. However, if a series' aim is to explore the impact of art, activism, and race on Black film, it seems strange not to mention the fact that Jackson has held the title of being the highest-grossing actor of all time since 2011.

Similarly Danny Glover, the co-star of one of the biggest action film franchises in modern movies, "Lethal Weapon," appears only in a scene from Boots Riley's 2018 film "Sorry to Bother You." Will Smith and Mahershala Ali are at least spoken about and seen in film excerpts; James Earl Jones appears in clips from "Claudine" and yet, nobody says his name out loud during that sequence.

Spike Lee receives his propers – mostly, keep reading – owing to his vast influence on Black cinema in the wake of "She's Gotta Have It" and more directly, 1989's "Do the Right Thing." Frederick draws a line between the groundbreaking critical success of that film and the rise of hip-hop's influence in the 1990s, culminating in movies such as Ernest Dickerson's "Juice" and Singleton's "Boyz N The Hood."

Strangely, though, the series zips through the Blaxploitation era without mentioning Melvin Van Peebles' controversial "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," the film Lee himself credits for launching the modern independent Black cinema revolution. Neither does the series spend much time exploring the significant mainstream box office successes of Tyler Perry and Keenan Ivory Wayans, and all but ignores the existences of F. Gary Gray, Antoine Fuqua, The Hughes Brothers, and Reginald Hudlin.

In other respects, "They've Gotta Have Us" simply comes across as slapdash, which is more to its detriment. One such moment involves Jenkins discussing the 2017 Oscar fiasco in the midst of which it was announced that his 2016 film "Moonlight" had won Best Picture.

Jenkins poignantly discusses the tension and weight he felt at being nominated for Best Director that year, and knowing that had he won, he would have been the first Black person to have earned that honor.  An intertitle lists the number of Black directors nominated by the Academy throughout the years, including John Singleton in 1991 for "Boyz N the Hood," Lee Daniels in 2009 for "Precious"; Steve McQueen for "12 Years a Slave"; Jenkins; and Peele for "Get Out."

This is incredibly powerful, especially once it fades into the next title card with a gigantic zero on it to show the number of Oscar wins. Of course, the image would have been even more potent, not to mention correct,  if that count included Lee, nominated in the director category in 2019 for "BlacKkKlansman."

To make this update would have required a simple edit and might have helped to mask the appearance that production on this series halted at some point in 2018. And a lot has happened on the Black cinematic front since then – like, say, the Smollett fiasco.

"Why is she still harping on that?" you may be asking, and the answer again points back to missed opportunities that were right in front of Frederick's face: his series discusses the importance of "Eve's Bayou" with its creator, Lemmon, and shows a scene centered upon its star Jurnee Smollett – yes, Jussie's non-controversial sister, currently starring of "Birds of Prey."

Despite its many missteps, "They've Gotta Have Us" hints at our having reached a point in cinema's existence that these stories are crying out to be correctly told and examined.  Frederick might even participate in that expanded telling, albeit with additional funding and editorial guidance from producers and editors who can land interview subjects who are difficult to pin down, and the good sense to let him know what's missing and what to leave out.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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