The title of Elvis Mitchell’s tremendous study of black American cinema is taken from Ossie Davis’s 1970 Blaxploitation buddy cop comedy Cotton Comes to Harlem, based on the Chester Himes novel, about a bale of cotton discovered in Harlem, of all the unlikely places: a bale which hides misappropriated cash and is of course a satirical symbol of oppression. Different characters wisecrack: “Is that black enough for you?”, riffing subversively on authenticity in the power struggle.
With a dense and fascinating mass of clips and interviews with figures in the movies such as Whoopi Goldberg, Zendaya, Samuel L Jackson and Laurence Fishburne, Mitchell fights back against cultural erasure and amnesia: there is a rich and vivid history of African American cinema which blossomed in Hollywood’s pioneering golden age, but was siloed in designated “negro” cinemas. (Martin Luther King is shown reminiscing about them.) Mitchell recalls unsung, or insufficiently sung, heroes of black moviemaking such as Oscar Micheaux, the first great African American film-maker who was an independent creative powerhouse from the silent age onwards.
To watch this documentary is to be taken by Mitchell through the political looking-glass (though more Philip K Dick than Lewis Carroll) into an alternative reality unguessed at by the white mainstream. Here there are black people on screen, who are not necessarily the servants or comic buffoons, but heroes, villains, lovers, children and parents. In a shrewd turn of phrase, he says that this black Hollywood is a “de facto underground economy and culture”.
From the golden age and the war, Mitchell takes us onward to the era of the counter-culture and civil rights, the rivalry between Harry Belafonte (who refused to take stereotypical roles) and Sidney Poitier, who became white Hollywood’s acceptable face of African American stardom. Mitchell begins by wondering if Poitier was a bit of a sellout compared to Belafonte, but concludes with a generous tribute to his staying power and prolific later career as a director. Muhammad Ali was an inspirational figure and a cultural bridgehead for black culture, and the explosive force of black music was another propulsive factor as black movies began to release their soundtrack albums before the films opened, as a promotional tool. And then came the glorious golden age that came to be known as Blaxploitation, a surge of popular cinema with which black audiences could identify, featuring unforgettable stars such as Pam Grier and Richard Roundtree and brilliantly entrepreneurial film-makers like Melvin Van Peebles and William Greaves.
Mitchell makes the interesting point that Blaxploitation was reviving old-fashioned verities of characterisation and storytelling, just as the white New Hollywood was questioning them. Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman were playing nervy anti-heroes who didn’t know what to make of the world. But there were also African American stars such as Billy Dee Williams who revelled in their masculinity and old-fashioned handsomeness.
But then Blaxploitation came to an end. Why? Mitchell wonders if the financial calamity of The Wiz, the all-black reimagining of The Wizard of Oz, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, had something to do with it; or whether the problem was the new Reaganite conservatism which also put the brakes on the American New Wave.
Either way, Mitchell leaves us to ponder that as this is where his film ends: he looks ahead to film-makers such as Julie Dash, but his film focuses on the 1970s, without making that the explicit subject of the film. What of the decades to come? Is there a distinctively black culture there to be rediscovered or reclaimed or reinvented? Mitchell makes that question the point of entry for everyone considering this. An absorbing and nourishing documentary.