The aesthetics of Black cinema often find popularity elsewhere. This is a focal point of Elvis Mitchell’s documentary about the history of Black film. It is a truth that repeats throughout: Black film breaks the mould, or establishes bold conventions, only for those expressions to find mainstream success in the movies of white filmmaker’s, or to just become synonymous with these later points as opposed to their origins. This documentary gives you the real story, a beautifully constructed tour through cinematic history that both celebrates and argues for the unique ‘canon’ that is Black film.
There is a formal traditionalism to this documentary: the expected mix of archival footage from a range of films interspersed with a number of notable talking heads (sat in cinemas, of course) and accompanied by perceptive narration from our seemingly omniscient historian. Within this traditional structure, it finds brilliance. It picks the right people, asks them the right questions and edits together the right narrative. The film’s flow is roughly chronological but it also orbits around the 1970s as a key decade for Black film. In doing so it illustrates how this decade echoes forwards, as well as how its expression is built on a rich history. The aim here is always to contextualise, to take things you either know or don’t know and to give you the full picture.
The narration (from Elvis Mitchell) is sharply written and excellently performed. It is reflective and personal while never becoming overly so. Mitchell uses his experiences to add to the films on show, and to the wider story, he never makes himself the story. The result is personal resonance, the import of this cinema sold to the viewer through engaging with how art speaks to people and communities; film doesn’t just exist on screen. The other highlight of the narration is, of course, the connections Mitchell is able to make: the films he is able to bring up and tell the story from. It is a smorgasbord of delights, both known and unknown. This documentary will remind you why you love certain films, while giving you new insights into them (or new perspectives on them) while also (even for the most dedicated cinephile) pointing out how much there is still to discover and watch. Prepare to add all kinds of things to your watchlist, and to be truly excited to experience them with a greater knowledge of how they contribute to a wider picture.
Though the talking head approach may seem unremarkable, here, it is very much the right approach. These parts are only as good as who you can get, what you can get out of them and how you fit it all together. The narrative that arises in this documentary is seamless, picking key figures to return to while also consistently surprising with who is actually in here. There are some brilliant inclusions and they speak to the quality of this project. You need the right people telling the right story and the voices here create an undeniable legitimacy. This matters. The people matter. The stories matter. It is a work of depth and rigour, and Mitchell gets so much out of the interviewees. The collection of anecdotes never feels like just that, it feels like a cohesive collection of important insights. It is also damn entertaining, letting people show their unbridled enthusiasm and passion. From these interviews, it finds a united tone and thematic core: one of exuberance and celebration, as well as of academic heft.
There are a few points where things falter, the odd unnecessary connection or undermotivated equivalence (a link to the reality of COVID-19 sits a touch awkwardly amongst otherwise timeless narration). However, the vast, vast majority of this (impressively lengthy) documentary just feels vital and, beyond that, seamless. This is an energetic and bold film that educates and entertains, and that carries real social worth.