6 Black Films That Changed Cinema

The title of the documentary Is this black enough for you?!? it comes from many different sources.

The phrase is a reference to the 1970 film Cotton comes to Harlem, with writer-director Ossie Davis. Davis, in turn, borrowed the saying from black revolutionaries, recording it in the ballad Black Enough (Ain’t Now But It’s Gonna Be)sung by Tony winner Melba Moore over the film’s sunny opening credits.

in Cotton comes to Harlem, con man Deek “The Reverend” O’Malley (Calvin Lockhart) asks a cheering crowd “Am I black enough for you?!” as he preaches. In another scene, Detective “Digger” Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) dryly asks “Is this black enough for you?” in a completely different tone. Barry (Theodore Wilson) asks janitor Uncle Bud (Red Fox) “Is this black enough for you?” with a wink. “It isn’t, but it will be,” replies Uncle Bud.

A few years later, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who would later develop the Philadelphia soul genre, would write the song Am I black enough for you?, recorded by Grammy winner Billy Paul. And in 1989, Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D would headline his fourth album Am I black enough for you? after his song of the same name, which sampled the Billy Paul song.

The documentary Is this black enough for you?!?, released by Netflix on Friday, is a visual personal essay that has been marinating in the mind of director and film historian Elvis Mitchell for years. Artists from across the ages—from Harry Belafonte and Charles Burnett to Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, and Zendaya—share their insights on the industry in interview excerpts. Mitchell wanted to examine a decade that forever changed both cinema and himself: the Black film of the 1970s.

“Like so much of black culture, it’s been greatly undervalued, diminished,” Mitchell says. “One might think it was nothing but Blaxploitation, black action movies that were camp and people couldn’t act and the action sequences were poorly staged. And none of that is true.”

Another common misconception: The 1970s, while notable, weren’t the first time black filmmakers got behind the camera. Rather, the documentary makes it clear that directors like Oscar Michaud were still working hard in the 1920s despite being denied access to Hollywood.

Mitchell grew up during this time, an unparalleled era in cinema that was steeped in black pride. He and his friends went to the movies every week and each time they saw something completely unexpected. It was a revelation to him.

“It’s weird to be on the ground floor, because innovation happens so often now that we don’t even think about it anymore,” Mitchell says. Whereas in the 1970s, “these things happen in this de facto underground. These things weren’t covered by the mainstream.”

Here are six films—each featured in the documentary—Mitchell chose to highlight from that period (including a few predecessors), accompanied by his reflections.– Laura Zornosa

Elvis Mitchell, director of Is That Black Enough for You?!? (Courtesy of Netflix)

Elvis Mitchell, the director of Is That Black Enough for You?!?

Courtesy of Netflix

Odds vs Tomorrow1959

The 1959 noir that was to make Harry Belafonte a movie star; instead, its failure kept him off the screen for more than a decade. And his anger is completely understandable – this is a fast-paced but contemplative crime drama that focuses on race, class and sexuality and treats its star as the sexual cynosure the world knew him to be; his presence as a down-on-his-luck jazz musician who must turn to robbery (with a makeshift gang built around a bitter, misanthropic gangster played by Robert Ryan in a role that not plus ultra of his caustic, self-loathing bottom feeders) is in contrast to the impact he makes walking into a room or even an elevator. Belafonte’s character’s rejection by the world at large (implicitly and explicitly because of his race) is the load-bearing wall that keeps this fascinating structure intact more than 60 years later.— Elvis Mitchell

Symbiopsychotaxiplasma: Take one1968

Funny, sobering and demanding all at once, writer, director and star William Greaves has turned a lifetime of insider film study into a deft and early work of art that would now be called ‘meta’. Greaves began his acting career decades earlier and was increasingly appalled by the lack of opportunities and roles for people of color; he turned his life into this story of a movie gone awry in the hands of a director (Greaves) who doesn’t know what he wants but is determined to make a movie nonetheless. The constant misfires exhaust and frustrate his cast and crew. The Sublime Joke: Greaves deliberately sabotages the project to engage his colleagues in art and life in a way they never dreamed of. We even get to witness—and endure—his pain at the secret he can’t reveal in this film that’s part fictional, part documentary, and all original. Take one is inspirational and inspired – and like so many other black films – created a text that is still quoted today.— EM

Cotton comes to Harlem1970

In which director Ossie Davis (ably assisted by co-writer Arnold Pearl, who penned the screenplay for the James Baldwin Malcolm X biopic) transforms Chester Hines’ gritty, neo-noir detective novel into a loose and joyous tale set in the upper reaches of The Manhattan that never existed. The story – NYPD detectives “The Gravedigger” Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and “Coffin Ed” Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) treat Harlem like their own and dispense justice as they see fit while on the trail of a would-be thief minister (Calvin Lockhart) who tries to control the citizens of the area – is given an enlightening headache through ingenious sets, brilliant styles and a cast that includes stage actors and other famous characters (these are the screen debuts of Red Fox and Cliven Little, among others) , whose viewing pleasure spills over onto the audience.— EM

Lady sings the blues1972

Even Diana Ross, in her starring role debut, seems startled by the performance she gives as the tragic Billie Holiday in this 1972 biopic; she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for the role. It’s shaped by her gifts and a hunger for black glamor in movies that has never been addressed, much less nurtured. It’s packed with stellar turns from a cast that includes Richard Pryor—who so completely owned the sections he glided through that the film almost never recovered from his disappearance—and, in the first iteration of his Dark Gable series, Billy Dee Williams , who left the audience swooning as he engaged in sheer charisma and rapport with the camera. (Producer Berry Gordy recognized the affinity between Ross and Williams, reuniting them a few years later for Mahogany.)— EM

The wraith who sat by the door1973

Ivan Dixon gave up a successful acting career and put his future on the line to direct this powerful adaptation of Sam Greenlee’s equally subversive novel. Its paranoid premise is drawn from a nightmare scenario that could be depicted on “Free the CIA” protest posters – what if a black man recruited by the CIA and then thrown into a mindless job as a window dresser to seduce sincere liberals , walked away from the agency and used his espionage training to train the disenfranchised and marginalized in a militant revolution that was taking over America, inner city by inner city? The film was so beautifully realized, especially by Lawrence Cooke’s nuanced and patient performance at its center, that Dixon claims The Ghost cost him his career.— EM

A killer of sheep1978

A landmark achievement in 1970s cinema and as a stage study, one of the most influential films of the 20th century, writer-director Charles Burnett’s observational and discursive drama follows the everyday life of a working man trying to build a life for your family. Such simplicity makes art. Burnett’s eye for emotional detail is unparalleled – with minimal dialogue he has created a living world whose flourishing idiosyncrasies allow each character to inhabit the film in such a way that we know who they are as soon as we see them; it can be compared to Italian neorealism, but it is so deeply and richly American that such a reference ignores its honesty, vitality and humor. It’s also that rare film where the kids exist in a believable and engaging way without coming off as insufferable and burdensome. Never has a feature directorial debut shown such mastery and yet received such a brief breakthrough.— EM

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