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A veteran movie critic's new documentary celebrates talents from Black cinema

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Longtime film critic Elvis Mitchell is now taking a turn behind the camera. He's out with a new documentary on Netflix called "Is That Black Enough for You?!?" Don't worry, there's still a lot of Elvis' signature cinema scholarship. The movie is also a sharp-eyed celebration of talents from Black cinema - some who became known to a wider public, like Sidney Poitier, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree and Billy Dee Williams, but some less so. And Elvis Mitchell, the critic, scholar and once film commentator on this very program, in addition to hosting the program The Treatment from member station KCRW, joins us from Los Angeles. Elvis, it's so wonderful to speak with you again.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Hi, Scott - longtime listener, first-time caller.

SIMON: (Laughter) I knew you'd been preparing something like that. I just knew I had to tee it up for you.

MITCHELL: (Laughter).

SIMON: All right, let's talk about this film, which I gather has, like, a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, right?

MITCHELL: You gathered that from me. But, yes, as of this - as of when we're speaking, it's at 100%.

SIMON: The title comes from - explain that story for us.

MITCHELL: It's a line from the movie "Cotton Comes to Harlem," but it's a line that repeats throughout the movie and takes on different permutations and connotation every time it's spoken - sometimes ironically, sometimes with sincerity, sometimes with vitriol. For these talents in these movies - and this, I think, became this de facto movement, this expression of freedom and joy and just all these talents giving - seizing really - the opportunity to show what they had to offer.

SIMON: You bring us back to films that might be hard to find now. Tell us about the Black cinema that grew up during the days of segregation.

MITCHELL: Well, gosh, you know, when you look at the studio system where, you know, it was this factory. There's a director who did the work that they did, and the editors did their work, and the cinematographers. That was not the case in Black cinema. These towns all had to do these things because that was the demand if you were a filmmaker of color. You had to go find the money, you wrote the script, you cast it. If that's not enough, you went out and booked the movie into theaters on the Black circuit.

And one of the great points in the movie - and it breaks my heart to see it - Dr. King talking about the kind of entertainment that people of color were relegated to see. You saw second- and third-run movies in the colored theaters, as he says. My grandmother said she stopped going to movies because she went to a movie theater - which is probably some converted warehouse or grain silo or something in Mississippi - and they stopped the projection because a bat got loose in the theater. And she just said, I don't need to spend money to go be chased by bats, and she left.

SIMON: We know and honor Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Diahann Carroll. But you suggest they could have - should have had bigger film careers. This is going to sound naive, but what happened?

MITCHELL: I think it's not naive at all. I think it's the unfortunate sort of inertia, the institutional racism that made up the entertainment business. Harry Belafonte, who was trained to be an actor and was born to be an actor, rather than make movies that he thought were demeaning to his people and himself, he chose not to act.

SIMON: He turned down "Lilies Of The Field?"

MITCHELL: Absolutely. He didn't act from 1959 till 1970. And people were asking me, well, do you judge Sidney Poitier for having done them? And I said, no, because if Sidney Poitier had not done those movies, they would not have gotten made.

SIMON: Yeah. What did blowout hits like "Shaft" and "Super Fly" create in cinema?

MITCHELL: Oh, my gosh. God, it's so interesting. I mean, may I ask if you ever got to see any of these movies in the theater before we go any further?

SIMON: I saw "Shaft" in the theater. I - and "Super Fly" in the theater.

MITCHELL: I'm imagining you saw these movies in theaters with crowds who were largely of people of color.

SIMON: Yeah.

MITCHELL: And there was an excitement being at ground zero of seeing - it was like seeing a new planet being discovered, wasn't it?

SIMON: Yeah.

MITCHELL: And these films were, in their way, such pieces of guerilla filmmaking. I had the cinematographer from "Super Fly" talk about how they managed to get that incredible stunt of Ron O'Neal running down the street, wearing a suede suit and high heels, vaulting over a five-foot fence, jumping up onto a fire escape. You're watching the film project, and I remember, as a, kid saying, why are his hands shaking? And I realized it's the adrenaline from the chase. So this is - so much of this, too, is not only about the kind of enterprise and invention to many of these filmmakers and talent, but the impact and influence that we are living with, to this very day.

SIMON: Yeah. I have to ask, because you have an interesting clip in here from no less than Bobby Seale, was blaxploitation blaxploitation?

MITCHELL: You know, that's such a loaded question, Scott. I mean, because I don't have, really, an issue with the term, but it's a dismissal. People say, oh, those campy movies where nobody could act and the action was badly staged. And I said, well, first of all, neither of those are true because the movies aren't campy. And I even use an example, seeing this movie "Three The Hard Way," which had Jim Brown, Jim Kelly and Fred Williamson fighting these white supremacists who are dumping something into the water that was - of Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles - that was going to kill all the people of color, which I thought was a hilarious premise. And my father explained to me that there was this thing called the Tuskegee Experiment.

SIMON: What's the state of Black film today for actors, for directors, for the audience?

MITCHELL: This is interesting because, I mean, I tend to think of a lot of the best Black film - be it "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm" or "Killer Of Sheep" or "Sweet Sweetback," for that matter - being made independently in ways that redefined what independent film was and created a wave of people who imitated the manner in which these filmmakers worked. I wonder if that's happening to the same extent, because being rejected by the mainstream gave these filmmakers ambitions to sort of show what was not being said.

But there is, as often is not a welcoming of Black talent. You get nothing about what Jordan Peele did with "Get Out" and realize that it's being remade in "Don't Worry Darling." The thing that scares me - and again, this is just a fact of being old, I guess - is that Black films have been - is treated as a genre. There's not a Black Western; it's a Black film. It's not a Black romantic comedy; it's a Black film. So if one of these films fails, it's all of Black film being held down and being judged. Well, if that one fails, maybe it will all fail.

Because during - and I don't know if you guys got this in D.C., Scott, we got this thing in the West Coast called a pandemic. During this interregnum, I start getting these calls from studio executives. Listen, you know, we're putting together this blue-ribbon panel to try to figure out how to deal with what's happened in the wake of George Floyd. And we want to try to go forward in some way that feels positive. And I just said, I don't need to be on a panel. I don't have the time for this. Just hire some Black people. It's really not that hard. Otherwise, what are we going to do - this blue-ribbon panel on Zoom? I can't even get any pastry out of it, so I'm going to pass...

SIMON: (Laughter).

MITCHELL: ...But thank you.

SIMON: Elvis Mitchell - his new documentary "Is That Black Enough for You?!?" on Netflix. Elvis, don't be a stranger.

MITCHELL: Well, all you got to do is call. You know how to find me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.