‘Is that black enough for you?!?’: Elvis Mitchell interview

The film scholar and public broadcaster tells IndieWire about directing Is That Black Enough for You?!? and why the 1970s was the greatest decade ever for black film.

Elvis Mitchell has been one of America’s premier critics, interviewers and pop culture historians for over 25 years, and with his new Netflix documentary Is That Black Enough for You?!?, he’s proving he’s also a world-class filmmaker. Is That Black Enough for You is an engagingly personal yet rigorously analytical and utterly original crash course in ’70s cinema, covering all the major actors and filmmakers, Ossie Davis, Melvin van Peebles, Diahann Carroll, Diana Ross and so, so many more. As Mitchell told IndieWire, his background as a journalist had a clear advantage: “When I teach film, I always say that there used to be two reasons for going to film school, access to film and access to equipment. So I had one of those things for me. I had seen many, many, many films and asked myself questions about them.”

Mitchell took inspiration from his grandmother when it came to finding a focus for his material. “She taught me to ask the questions that weren’t being asked, to look for what wasn’t there, and to ask myself why it wasn’t there,” he said. “And that really contributed to how you make this film, which is, ‘What wasn’t there? What should it say here? What are the things that haven’t been said before?’” With the help of producer Steven Soderbergh—who provided support and guidance throughout the process—Mitchell found that the new tools at his disposal gave him a new perspective on the films he knew and loved. “The great thing about working with a production company is that you realize you’re surrounded by people who want to do what you want to do. They want to make the best possible film. I mean, there may be disagreements, but no one is trying to undermine what I do. Everyone was on my side to help me with this. That made things extremely pleasant. And just learning what adding an instrument could do, or doing complete silence or a fade instead of a crosscut or a diptych, just having options felt like actually seeing movies for the first time.”

Listen to the full discussion below or continue reading excerpts from the conversation.

You can listen to the full discussion above, or subscribe to the Toolkit Podcast via Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, or Overcast.

The viewer, too, feels like they are experiencing the films for the first time, thanks to Mitchell’s sensitive approach to forgotten films and filmmakers, as well as their canonized counterparts. His section on Blazing Saddles star Cleavon Little is particularly insightful. “There’s such resilience to that performance,” Mitchell said of Little’s performance as Sheriff Bart. “He goes from foil to straight male, not just in the same scene, in the same one shot. I mean, this is as understated work and as understated work as I’ve ever seen in movies. I mean, that whole thing where he stages his own kidnapping and makes fun of a convention but not the character. You have to believe that he plays both well. It’s a performance where you’re conscious of where you are both in this story and in the conventions of satire.”

One of the writers of Blazing Saddles, Richard Pryor (who was set to play Sheriff Bart until the studio refused to insure him), is another theme of Is That Black Enough for You?!?, though Pryor is an electrifying stand -up comic, the films he made rarely utilized his talent to the fullest, which Mitchell credited in part to Pryor and his choices. “What did Balzac say about greed being the purest motive? [Pryor] could make a lot of money with it [bad comedies]’ Mitchell said.

But Is That Black Enough For You?!? shows that with the right material, as in Paul Schrader’s “Blue Collar,” Pryor could hold his own on screen alongside heavyweights like Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto. “It’s a Paul Schrader film, which means the best scene in the film is the scene of her misery after that night of debauchery. Not the orgy itself, but what’s left for them afterwards. Pryor’s fear and determination about what to do are combined in such a way that you actually see him in a take with two of the most powerful actors of the ’70s and give him some attention as an actor in a way you often haven’t.”

Is That Black Enough For You?!? also takes a fresh look at actor-director Sidney Poitier, paying tribute to the way Poiter reinvented himself in the 1970s where credit is due. “In 1968 he’s the biggest box office magnet in the world,” Mitchell said. “Two years later, he’s completely irrelevant just because of politics. In the pages of the New York Times, he was mocked for not being cool enough. what does that do to you And instead of giving up, he understood who and what he was. He understood what black audiences wanted, and he did what I think this era is all about, which is to say that you’re offering people something that movies in this country have always been about, which is kind of Heroism. People react to that. And so he’s the hapless hero of Uptown Saturday Night, but he’s still heroic. American films, unlike films about other cultures, always built on this myth of heroism, and he understood that if he toyed with it but offered it, audiences would respond to it.”

Little, Pryor and Poitier are just a few of dozens of fascinating subjects covered by Elvis Mitchell in Is That Black Enough for You and this week’s Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast. Listen above for more insights, observations and recommendations. The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast and Stitcher.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/11/is-that-black-enough-for-you-elvis-mitchell-interview-netflix-documentary-1234781051/ ‘Is that black enough for you?!?’: Elvis Mitchell interview

Lindsay Lowe

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