‘Is That Black Enough for You?!?’ shines a light on the blaxploitation film genre

HOLLYWOOD (News4usonline) – Blaxploitation films were the rage during the 1970s. These movies reflect struggles for African Americans in a more heroine role as opposed to flicks that highlight Black people as barrier-breakers. In a historical context, African Americans are typically seen as either a victim or unapologetically preening on the big screen like a shuffling shoe waiting for their next assignment. 

What that genre of moviemaking did was try to erase the stereotypical role or stigma launched on characters that shed a negative light on African Americans. Under the crust of the 1960s and well into the 1970s, Blacks were dealing with the societal crisis of fighting for voting rights, battling segregation, enduring in-your-face police brutality, and largely trying to be seen as equal citizens here in the United States. 

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So at the time they were being made, blaxploitation films were geared more towards to uplift, encourage and to promote Black life in a way never seen before. You saw through these fictional roles Pam Grier develop into the superstar she became. Richard Roundtree as John Shaft in the “Shaft” movies series, represented Black masculinity in a way no one saw coming. 

That steaming bathtub scene between Ron O’Neal and Sheila Frasier in “Superfly,” put some real heat on Black love. And if you wanted to check out a badass buddy movie, you’d be hard-pressed to find one that best fit that description than “Three the Hard Way,” a film that sees three heroic Black men in the form of the great Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly, kicking butt and taking names later. 

All these films and so many others are beautifully capsulated in the Netflix documentary “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” that was showcased at the 2022 AFI Fest. What “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” director Elvis Mitchell does with this film (2 hours, 15 minutes) project the historical context behind the blaxploitation movie era and its importance on cinema in general. 

This is an important film to see on so many levels. For those who don’t have a clue or know anything about the blaxploitation films or just have some passing fancy knowledge about them, “Is That Black Enough for You?!? shines the perfect light on that era. 

It is both historical and entertaining. Mitchell, who narrates the documentary, is able to provide well-researched depth and candid interviews with some of the players of that time period which makes the film even more powerful. 

Mitchell was able to nail down Frasier, Samuel L. Jackson, Lawrence Fishburne, Zendaya, Glynn Turman, and director Charles Burnett in one-on-one interviews to bring more clarity and context to his documentary. There are a couple of notes about the documentary. 

For one, “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is a rich cascade of clips from the blaxploitation film era. The range is wide. From the terrifying “Blacula” to the coming-of-age flick “Cooley High” to action movies like “Cleopatra Jones” and “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and the comedic “Uptown Saturday Night,” there is a lot of face time for many of these films buried somewhere in cinema archival.     

“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is Intertwined during the Civil Rights Movement all through the Disco era. As the film explains both the rise and decline of the blaxploitation era, it does so with strong antidotes. Aside from the films, you may have heard about (Foxy Brown) or plenty more that you may not have hear about (The Spook Who Sat by the Door), Mitchell explores in great detail what forces fueled the blaxploitation era and what led to its demise. 

Rare photograph of Pam Grier and Antonio Fargas behind the scenes on Foxy Brown.
A rare photograph of Pam Grier and Antonio Fargas behind the scenes on Foxy Brown. Courtesy photo

One example that MItchell illustrates well is the importance of the film’s theme music. What blaxploitation films got right is featuring the stars of the respective works with the theme music blaring loudly in the background, giving audiences a clear-cut understanding of who is the alpha dog of the movie (Shaft comes to mind). 

It is a copycat thumbnail that mainstream Hollywood began to implement in films like “Saturday Night Fever.” Theme music is now all too important to a movie these days (Just check out Disney’s Beauty and the Beast or the original Black Panther). 

The other part of this equation is that long before there was a Samuel L. Jackson or Denzel Washington or Viola Davis, blaxploitation films gave a career boot to thespians like Judy Pace, Vonetta McGee, Tamara Dobson, Rudy Ray Moore, Godfrey Cambridge, Calvin Lockhart, and Raymond St. Jacques. Brown, Williamson as well as Sidney Potier, Sammy Davis Jr., and the great Billy Dee Williams also had their careers shoot upward while starring in these films. 

What “Is That Black Enough for You?!? does more than anything else is showcase the wealth of talent blaxploitation films produced. Without these films being independently made, would we even know about Pam Grier or Rudy Ray Moore? 

Armed with a hunger to see themselves on the big screen in the way that they wanted to be portrayed, African Americans didn’t wait any longer to get permission to do that. Blaxploitation films were their voice at the time that Black people didn’t really have any. “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” why we must never forget that genre of filmmaking and without it, we’ll just be whitewashing a part of cinematic history.