Elvis Mitchell: The success of Black '70s films was "the dirty little secret of American cinema"

On "Salon Talks," the film critic discusses Netflix's "Is That Black Enough For You?!?" and celebrates Black art

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 30, 2022 12:00PM (EST)

Elvis Mitchell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Elvis Mitchell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Today cinephiles consider Gordon Parks Jr.'s "Three the Hard Way," an action vehicle starring Jim Brown, Jim Kelly and Fred Williamson, to be a classic. But back in the day, veteran film critic Elvis Mitchell found the plot to be laughable.

Mitchell, who directed, executive produced and wrote the Netflix documentary "Is That Black Enough For You?!?" recalls that when he first saw it, he said as much his father: Imagine putting a chemical that would kill all Black people in the water supplies of major cities. Who'd think of that? "And my father said to me when the movie was over, 'You don't know about the Tuskegee experiment, do you?' I went, 'They experimented on Tuskegee?'"

By his father explaining the underlying inspiration for Parks' blast-'em-up, he came to understand the way a piece of explosive entertainment could acknowledge a piece history left out of mainstream conversations. Suddenly the premise of "Three the Hard Way" made all the sense in the world.  

This one of the ways Mitchell began to forge an appreciation for late '60s and '70s-era Black cinema early in his life, a decade that the film scholar, critic and radio program host came to realize was both highly impactful and broadly dismissed. This one of the ways Mitchell began to forge an appreciation for Black cinema early in his life.

"Is That Black Enough For You?!?" is Mitchell's way of bringing renewed attention to the groundbreaking output of Black filmmakers in that decade, linking their directing and cinematographic innovations to the work of auteur filmmakers that came after them, including Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. Within its two hours Mitchell achieves a broad enough sweep of titles, individuals and artistic influences for the documentary to qualify as a solid primer in film history. At the same time, Mitchell conveys his personal connection to these films in a way that encourage us to appreciate their creative daring and variety in a way rarely articulated in most American filmmaking appreciations.

"Even the films that were dismissed . . . as Blaxploitation had a lot more going on in them than meets the eye," Mitchell told me in our recent conversation. "There's just a richer and more satisfying artistic movement that took place in that period than was ever thought of before, except by people of color."

Mitchell's enthusiasm buoys our "Salon Talks" interview, where we discuss Black cinema's legacy and how modern day filmmaking, music and television carries it forward.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

This is one of the first examinations of the '70s and '70s Black cinema that I've seen that put it in context of the whole of cinema and also the whole of Black cinema from the beginning of the medium, and also recognizing the reasons that it was so influential and overlooked. What was the impetus for making this documentary?

I felt like offering that kind of framing for this really exciting and explosive, and also by the way commercially successful, period of filmmaking had gone wildly overlooked. I remember when the book "Easy Riders, Raging Bull" came out and I said to a friend, "It should be really interesting to see how he places Black film in that context during that period." He goes, "Well, there's no Black people in the book." Of course there's no Black people in the book. 

Another thing that really forced this for me is at one point I was talking to a guy who ran Warner Bros. in the early '70s who I quote talking about "Super Fly," and he said, "Listen, the dirty little secret of American cinema is that it was financed by Black film in the '70s." We should remember that "Shaft" kept MGM from bankruptcy by the time they were auctioning off portions of the lot and Dorothy's ruby slippers and all these artifacts that people thought they would keep forever. "Shaft" came through and was this breeze of I think a real hope for the movie business, but also a great and fascinating time for film that, to the point you made in the new introduction just a moment ago, just wasn't getting it to do. 

You originally envisioned this as a book, is that correct? 

Yeah, I was imagining it to be a book and I thought, well again to go along with books such as "Easy Riders, Raging Bull" and Mark Harris' great look of the film year in 1968 "Pictures at a Revolution." And I thought, "Huh." Because again, as you were saying, there's just not been an examination of this period in phenomenological terms, in artistic terms, in so many ways. When you hear it mentioned, usually the word that begins and ends the conversation is Blaxploitation, as if that's all they were. 

"What I wanted to do is show that there was a universe of Black film being made in that period and they were all part of the same tapestry."

The associations that Blaxploitation that we get from that is just, "Well, it's campy and it's silly and it's not to be paid attention to and we should dismiss it." I think this was a period that shouldn't be dismissed. So often when that kind of thing happens it does damage to us as a culture, but it's also a way of just ignoring the impact that filmmakers of color, Black actors and actresses, Black musicians had on the medium. I think we do that at our peril and we do it too often.

What do you think that Blaxploitation means in 2022?

I think it's still a reductive way to deal with the period. It's like saying, "urban music." That incredible thing you're saying about the way you grew up, what I wanted to do is show that there was a universe of Black film being made in that period and they were all part of the same tapestry, really. I never separated them because growing up the way I did, all these things were available to see. So you could go see "Sounder" and then see "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" and see "Super Fly" and actually watch actors move back and forth. Antonio Vargas, who was one of the interview subjects, is in "Across 110th Street," but he's also in "Cleopatra Jones," and then he's in the Paul Mazursky film "Next Stop, Greenwich Village."

Just to see these actors basically plying their trade and growing in their craft and that was fun to spot too, and if these actors weren't making distinctions about the kind of movies that they were in then why should I? And that really became this eye-opening point of view for me and think, "Well, if these guys won't look down on it, I won't either." It's still become a kind of a watchword for me just to kind of follow the talent, and that's one of the things I tried to do with this documentary.

"Success should beget success, and when it comes to projects from people of color, it often does not."

Do you think that the documentary format suits the telling of this, the exploration of this history, better than having it as a book?

Given that people said no to the book, I'm going to say yes. Absolutely. Documentary much better than books, because otherwise I'd still be waiting to do it. Let's not kid ourselves here, nobody wanted this book from me. 

Well maybe you should answer this question for me. Was the experience of getting it to the phase of getting the green light on a film — did it seem like it was a shorter distance than getting it made as a book?

I'll give you a long answer. No, it wasn't easier. I would just kind of mention it and people would go, "Oh, that sounds really interesting. My Uber is here so I'll catch up with you later."

I had done a Q&A event with Steven Soderbergh and we were just having a conversation after, and he said to me, "So what exactly is it you're doing with your career anyway?" And I said, "Well that's sweet you think I have a career. There's this thing I've been trying to do." And he goes, "Well, that's a great idea." 

[I thought] I know where this is going: "I'll get the check so I can go." He said, "No, this is a great idea. I can cash flow this for you." This is four years ago now. I just said, "Oh my God, that's great. I have no idea what that means." He goes, "I can finance it, but let's go set it up someplace so you can make a living and we're not just financing it and selling it so you can make money after the fact." 

"So much of Black culture in terms of ways it's covered in this country is binary. Either it's there or it's not."

We go and have a couple meetings and at one meeting somebody just turns away from me and goes, "So Steven, when are you going to have time to make this movie?" because this is the before times when we realized that Black people can make movies about themselves. He just looked and said, "Why would you think I should direct this? He's sitting right here." He just looks and he said, "You know David Fincher?" I said, "Yeah." He goes, "Let's get Dave and take this over to Netflix." And Fincher says, "Oh, I know why you couldn't get this made, because it's about a bunch of Black people. So let's go make it." It took that. It took these guys getting behind it and getting it set up. I started to think it's just going to be one of these things I tell people about and maybe one day I self-publish it or start doing it as a series on Instagram or something. That it turned into this thing with resources behind it and Netflix behind it is still unreal to me. 

One of the things that you brought up is the fact that these films were marketable, made money, and in one case saved a studio. You have the example of "Black Panther" coming up and all these different people saying, "See? Black films and films making about Black . . ." I see you wrinkling your nose. 

You say that, when four years ago when the first "Black Panther" came out, people were saying, especially after it became so successful, this is going to change everything. I said, "No, it's not." Some way it will be defined as sui generis. It's a Marvel movie, it's a sequel, it's part of the Avengers Metaverse. Some way or another there will be people saying things that will prevent imitations of it. This year we finally got "The Woman King" and the sequel to "Black Panther" and that's it. So it wasn't what you were saying, because I love what you're saying, but you take me back to the film with success should beget success, and when it comes to projects from people of color, it often does not.

To your point, there were so many people talking about the fact that this is an example and going back and saying, "This is how much money is being left on the table by not making films that tell stories of not just Black folks, but people of color." One of the things that I think that your documentary does really well is show after all of this prolific output, all of these influential titles, at the very end it's "The Wiz" that's pointed to as like, "Well, these films don't make money" and then it just kind of disappears. . . . What do you think that this [recent success] may do to open the doors for more Black creatives and more Black films in the future?

I think incrementally there have been some changes, certainly, and maybe the interregnum between these cycles are getting smaller. You'll have a bust like "The Wiz," which had it just got bad reviews and made money, people would've looked the other way because "Super Fly" and "Shaft" didn't get great reviews but they were money-makers so people held their noses and went along with it. But when there's this bust that's always this kind of thing of, "Huh, well we tried. We tried, but we didn't know how to get Black audiences out." It leaves certain facts out like the African American audience, and for that matter the Latinx audience, spends disproportionately on entertainment in ratio to its part of the population. So you ignore that and leave that money on the table, as you said. You think about the Moneyball philosophy, you can go to the World Series hitting singles and doubles, and clearly "The Woman King" is a solid double. You put another runner on base, another runner on base, that's a home run eventually.

. . . And when Black films come back, as often as not the story is, "Black films are back." I say, "But they didn't go anywhere." "No, but Black films are back." "They didn't go anywhere." "I see what you're saying, but Black films are back." So that somehow becomes about you and me trying to change the way that narrative is positive because so much of Black culture in terms of ways it's covered in this country is binary. Either it's there or it's not. There's no complication in the story and that's the sad truth.

This movie is coming out around the same time as, sadly, one of my favorite TV series "Atlanta" is ending. I don't know if you watch "Atlanta," but the recent episode, "The Goof [Who Sat] by the Door" was so excellent in terms of the marvelous episodes in the entire series. All these little homages, not just to "The Spook Who Sat by the Door," but also "Putney Swope," all of these things within that particular episode were just genius. When I was thinking about that while watching this, I'm curious to know from you which TV creators, filmmakers are carrying forward the legacy that was established in the '70s by all these great filmmakers that you feature here.

I think what you've just mentioned with what Donald Glover's doing, and he's doing it across media. He's not just doing it in television, he's doing it in music videos. He's doing it in music. This idea that all Black culture is all connected. It's what Issa Rae was doing. It's what James Samuel is doing. So many filmmakers are doing this now. It's what Gina Prince-Bythewood's doing for goodness sake. It's just that there was a time when I think independent film was looked upon as being this viable resource. So many people come from that. There's Ava DuVernay who got to start an independent film. There's Dee Rees. I mean I could sit there and just the more we talk, the more names I can come up with. In the last few years or so we have had this collective wave of conscious filmmaking, conscious storytelling that includes all these touchpoints.

I got to tell you, I was thrilled when I saw the episode of "Atlanta" because it's like my God it feels like there's something in the water now. That there's a Sidney Poitier documentary in the same time that this is out. At one point in this film I had a scene that we just had to lose for time about Louis Armstrong's impact on mainstream film, that you go from Louis Armstrong to Bing Crosby who he got high with and taught how to get high. And the Bing Crosby example going to Dean Martin who was doing Bing Crosby. Then being Crosby to Dean Martin to Elvis Presley. I mean even seeing the movie "Elvis" and seeing Sister Rosetta Tharpe in that made me think, "Well gosh, these things all kind of surface often simultaneously. But when they go away, rather than try to replicate them as in the case of "Black Panther."

And isn't that puzzling? That that didn't send people shuffling around through all their portfolios looking for other pieces of IP so they could try to do something like that with. But that even goes back to at one point Stan Lee and Jack Kirby saying that the character, when he was created in 1965, was inspired by Sidney Poitier. So there's continual conversation. And I love it so often, especially in "Insecure" and in "Atlanta" and these really magnificently long range and long form pieces of storytelling, they don't leave movies out, they don't leave music out. They understand that people don't just watch movies or watch TV or listen to music, that we all do all kinds of things.

This isn't spoiling anything, but it's such a great quote because I wanted to talk to you about it. It's the very last quote in the movie that you say, "Being Black in America is often about remembering that what you think you are isn't what other people see, and figuring out the distance between those two perceptions." So how do you think that the films of this era really crystallize that for you?

You just mentioned "Atlanta" and that last episode. But what "Atlanta" does every season is there's an episode that I think fundamentally asks that question. . . . I think "The Harder They Fall" they did that too. And this is a kind of thread that runs through the documentary, people talking about Westerns and Sam Jackson saying, "I would like to have had a Black cowboy," and Suzanne de Passe saying the same thing. And even Charles Burnett. And it's not that there weren't Black cowboys, but there would be a Black Western that was also Harlem on the range. A western that's also a murder mystery. That's also a screwball comedy. That's also a melodrama.

Those filmmakers had to pack these things in because they never knew when they'd get to do another. But with "Atlanta" or "Insecure," where it's about that neighborhood and the way people dealt with that neighborhood . . . I think that there's a constancy of people working in that level of self-awareness in ways that are explicit now that they wouldn't have been before. 

"I think this was a period that shouldn't be dismissed."

I mean in that period you had Bill Greaves doing it with "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm," which is an astonishing film. A great piece of filmmaking, a film that's completely aware of the presence of having a person of color. The discomfort that he causes, the director being a Black person, is never even addressed directly but it's there. And for my money, you can't look at that movie and not see the impact it must have had on somebody like Sacha Baron Cohen. Or to bring it back into full circle and to your question, to Eric Andre, who's also dealing with that question of being a person of color and not talking about it. But being a person of color who's also kind of a really bebop improviser and what that does to people who won't acknowledge that but are still afraid that that's part of who and what he is. I'm glad you asked that, because I think it's extant in a way that it hadn't been before and people can take or leave at their pleasure.

By Melanie McFarland

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

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