Is That Black Enough For You?!?: inside the Black cinema revolution of the 70s

I’m worried about Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. The original, released to great fanfare in 2018, was such a hit across the board – with critics, at the box office, as a cultural force – that it seems all the sequel can do is let down, especially in this economy. Never mind that this is a major studio franchise with a keen global audience we’re talking about here. Black Panther is still a Black film, a label that always makes for disproportionately higher stakes.

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“It doesn’t matter if it’s a Black western or a Black musical comedy like Sister Act or a Black action franchise like Creed or a comic book film like Black Panther,” says the esteemed film historian Elvis Mitchell. “They’re still first and foremost Black movies. That’s the genre. So if one fails, then suddenly, the precarious grouping of dominos all comes down.”

Mitchell zooms in on precisely this fragility as writer-director of Is That Black Enough for You?!?, a new Netflix documentary exploring Black Americans’ robust contributions to movies in the 20th century. The filmography alone will have you wondering why there isn’t a movie channel devoted to looping gems such as Odds Against Tomorrow (about an ex-con pulled into one more big heist) or Uptight (a Black revolutionary take on The Informer). Over the 135-minute runtime, Mitchell – a prolific writer, lecturer and podcast host – deftly cobbles together the story of each film into the larger narrative of representation. And his definitive history draws added credibility from cameos by Samuel L Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Zendaya and other luminaries.

What becomes clear fairly early on is putting Black people on film (much less centering them) was incredibly risky business. Early on, censors wouldn’t hesitate to write off a Black film as “adult entertainment” if Black and white people physically interacted. It hardly mattered if the scene was as straightforward as Sidney Poitier backslapping Yvonne De Carlo in Band of Angels, which escapes the mature rating by jump-cutting past the moment of impact. Instead, Poitier rears back, the film cuts out and a scowling De Carlo returns on screen holding her face. But the slap sound effect leaves no doubt as to what happened when we saw the film literally slide off the reel.

It didn’t much matter that the risky business of putting Blacks in film was a goldmine, either. That was never truer than in the 70s, when blaxploitation films snatched many Hollywood studios from the brink of insolvency. In 1972, Gordon Parks Jr marked his directorial debut with Super Fly, financing the film’s $500,000 budget in part with money from his famous shutterbug father before the film was bought by Warner Bros; it went on to clear $4m in profit – and not just from Black audiences. As star Ron O’Neal himself notes in one archival TV interview, after Super Fly’s 20-week box office run in Boston: “We ran out of Black people after the third week.”

“Hollywood’s dirty little secret” is how former Warner Bros chief John Calley summed up the blaxploitation effect on the major studios, which empowered them to take fliers on George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and other decade-defining auteurs. “Shaft kept MGM from bankruptcy when they were auctioning off everything just to keep the studio going,” says Mitchell. “Now MGM is part of Amazon.”

Black films helped make moviegoing into more of an event. In addition to writing and directing The Learning Tree, Gordon Parks Sr also arranged the score and, in the process, invented the movie soundtrack; those playlists – and, later, companion albums of singles “inspired by” the film – would come to play a massive role in the marketing of films before the record industry imploded. At one point in our Zoom call, Mitchell remembers walking into an LA screening of Waiting to Exhale and being greeted by the sound of audience members singing along to the soundtrack. “It really became about making the music as part of the experience,” he says. “By virtue of having Whitney Houston in it, that obviously embellishes the depth and the richness and the satisfaction of that experience. But that begins in the 1970s, when people are really driven to see Super Fly by Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack.” What’s more, blaxploitation music, costumes, one-liners and swagger would form the building blocks of hip-hop culture.

Ron O’Neal in Super Fly.
Ron O’Neal in Super Fly. Photograph: Ronald Grant

And yet for all of the Black film’s material benefits, the big studios couldn’t wait to turn away from them as soon as their bets on Lucas et al paid off. From 1978 to 1986, fresh Black films were nowhere to be found – a pause that gives lie to the idea that the only color that counts in Hollywood is green. It’s not until Spike Lee and Robert Townsend come along, respectively, with She’s Gotta Have It and Hollywood Shuffle in 1987 that Black films are marquee again. And even those classics Lee and Townsend hustled to make on shoestring budgets.

Those breakthroughs give the impression of a quantum leap in representation that saw Black actors go from playing background roles as servants and singers to taking center stage as layered protagonists. But Mitchell retraces the incremental progress – from Harry Belafonte (a genuine actor whose gangbusters singing career afforded him incredible leverage) to Pam Grier (a kick-ass pinup whose acting skills were massively underrated). “There’s still this feeling of ‘one at a time’ rather than an acceptance of the fact that there’s all this talent out there to be encouraged,” Mitchell says.

He also makes certain to pay due respect to lesser lights like Antonio Fargas – AKA Huggy Bear of Starsky & Hutch fame. (Fargas, who also makes a natty appearance in the documentary, is the rare Black actor who juggled a thriving TV and movie career in the 70s and hasn’t stopped booking roles since.) Mitchell even makes time for long-forgotten talents like Rupert Crosse – a literal leviathan who seemed on his way to mainstream stardom after working opposite Steve McQueen in The Reivers, only to wind up dying of lung cancer four years after the film’s 1969 release.

Terry Carter, Pam Grier and Antonio Fargas in 1974.
Terry Carter, Pam Grier and Antonio Fargas in 1974. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Overall, the film does the job of showing the gains Black film-makers have made over the decades and how it all feels fragile. Even now, some filmgoers rage against the idea of a Black mermaid or Black hobbits or Black characters in the new Game of Thrones spinoff – as if we weren’t whitewashed from spaghetti westerns, which Black audiences deeply identify with anyway. (The word cowboy, after all, was first meant to degrade Black ranch hands.) “If you grew up in the south around farms, you saw Black people on horses,” Mitchell says. “But you realize the idea of putting a Black person on a horse in a western would give them agency. It’s a real subtle, nuanced way of empowering somebody. But movies of that era weren’t giving them command over something and letting them go where they want. So Black people were left standing on the porch, watching other people ride away.”

Black representation in film still feels like a case that needs making – and one that only gets tougher to argue in an era when studios would rather take safety behind bankable stars or popular franchises. Case in point: Black Panther’s success begat a sequel, but no pale imitations. “It’s weird,” says Mitchell. “This business prides itself on being right-thinking and liberal-minded. But when it comes down to decision making, it still comes down to the same few people.”

What Mitchell proves, in his thorough sweep of film history, is that Black people can animate all of those things if given the chance to succeed as well as the chance to fail, too. “I want the movie to function partially as a cautionary tale,” Mitchell says. “Because it’s cyclical. Almost every year, we get someone saying, ‘Black films are finally coming back!’ when it’s more like, Where have they been? They didn’t go anywhere.”

  • Is That Black Enough For You?!? is now out in cinemas and will be on Netflix on 11 November