Review: Netflix’s “They Gotta Have Us” Is Your Black History Homework This Weekend

Despite the success of black films, filmmakers, and acting roles recently (Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Mahershala Ali winning back to back Oscars, Regina, Lupita, and countless others, 12 Years A Slave, Moonlight, and of course Black Panther taking over the world), we are about to enter another #Oscarsowhite Academy Awards this coming weekend.  It feels kinda weird that despite very strong films and acting this year, black films still need to fight for their space within the Hollywood system.  Simply put, “They Gotta Have Us.

Filmmaker and photographer Simon Frederick with the help of Ava Duvernay’s Array Productions, the BBC, and Netflix explored the history of African Americans in film, their acting, filmmaking, and activism throughout the years and enlisting some powerhouses (and some not so much powerhouses like Jussie Smollett of all people) within the industry to provide their perspective on the role of black cinema throughout history for a very intriguing look at its place with the movie industry.

The first episode of the three-part documentary is titled “Legends and Pioneers” as it explores icons like Harry Belafonte, Earl Cameron, and Diahann Carrol and goes into the history of the inclusion of black actors in the industry and what they had to do in order to find a way navigating Hollywood.  Topics like Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar win for Gone With The Wind, in which she wasn’t even allowed to enter the segregated Cocoanut Grove nightclub unless she entered through the back and how she had to campaign heavily herself just to get the nomination was explored.  Another interesting tidbit was Harry Belafonte explaining the Hays Code (which later became the Motion Picture Production Code) which prevented black and white actors from displaying any type of romance and how he and his romantic co-lead Joan Fontaine in the film Island in the Sun were forbidden to kiss each other, so they found an interesting way to silently protest the law by sharing a coconut ensure the in a small way, their lips touched in some form of fashion.  Diahann Carroll recounts her rise to fame being the first black woman nominated for the Best Actress award at the Oscars for Claudine, as well as her complex relationship with Sidney Poitier as he became the first black man to win Best Actor at the Oscars and the fear and responsibility his fellow cohorts knew her had thrust on himself for achieving such a title.  The significance of Carmen Jones being an almost all-black production made during that time is discussed, something we now take for granted had to be done by the elder statesmen back in the day for progress to be achieved.

The second chapter, “Black Film Is Not A Genre” explores the next generation of black creatives after the Blaxploitation era and how they helped navigate through the system when there was a black renaissance in the 80’s and 90s.  A big part of this time is due to Spike Lee as be broke on the scene during that time.  I really didn’t realize how much of an MGM musical fan Spike was as both She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze had outstanding musical numbers.  Denzel, who told his agent to send him every role Harrison Ford turns down (as per Spike Lee’s frequent cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson) helped him land many color-blind roles and build him to be the leading man we all know and love today  Dickerson also recounts how the late Tupac Shakur originally didn’t audition for his breakout role in Juice, and he was just there to hang with his friend Treach (from Naughty By Nature) who was there for an audition and just said “what the heck, I’ll try,” which led to him becoming an actor.  There’s also an interesting segment on rappers all of a sudden getting roles in films as well.

Speaking of films like Juice, you really can’t discuss this film without the literal OGs of the “Hood Movie” genre, Boyz n the Hood and John Singleton and the impact that film had on Hollywood.  Both John Singleton and Cuba Gooding Jr. recount their experiences making that film as well.  Gooding Jr. recounts that the Hollywood system required him to do multiple auditions for his role of Tre in the film, despite John Singleton confirming that he was his choice for the role.  Laurence Fishburne also recounts his role as Tre’s father and what attracted him to that role as they recounted his love for his son.  Gooding Jr. also talks about that despite being in a critically acclaimed film (and not even playing the “gangsta” part), all he would get calls for is “hood guy” for movies, which speaks to the stereotypical casting for black actors.  Robert Townsend hated that aspect of the business so much, that he made Hollywood Shuffle, which spoke about that very issue.

Another aspect the second chapter discussed was the question of “can white directors make black films?”  Norman Jewison directed A Soldier’s Story which was extremely black.  Steven Spielberg made The Color Purple and Whoopi Goldberg talks about the frustration that despite the cast being 99% black, black production crews, the fact that Stephen Spielberg was the director and that fact drew the ire from the NAACP.  She believes that the film should have had at least 11 Oscars, but voters were afraid of the backlash.  Director Taylor Hackford (one of the few white interview subjects) talks about him directing Ray and one of the first things he did for authenticity’s sake, was to have black people around to get a black perspective and work closely with Ray Charles.  Debbie Allen recounts her reading a book while a student at Howard University on the La Amistad slave mutiny and the 18-year long struggle to get Amistad made, and credits Steven Spielberg for helping it get pushed through and directing the film.  So yes, white folks can make black films, as long as they do it right.  The subject that kept coming up during that episode is that black film is not a genre as there are many different types of ways the black experience can be displayed through various genres, and black wasn’t one of them.

The third chapter “Black Is the New Hollywood” explores black cinema in a “post-Black Panther era” of Hollywood as African Americans continue to move towards greater diversity.  While Black Panther is almost “peak blackness” in regards to a big Hollywood blockbuster featuring a 99% all-black cast, black director, black production crew (Ruth Carter who won the Best Costume Design showed many of her designs and how they evolved through the filmmaking process), and pretty much was the blackest thing last year, a lot could be owed to Laurence Fishburne taking on the role of Morpheus in The Matrix.  Fishburne describes that for a long time there was no blackness in science fiction.  The original Star Wars pretty much had only Billy Dee Williams as Lando and he wanted to change that.  With him becoming Morpheus, he was Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Lando all rolled into one person.  The image of Fishburne as the philosophy spouting, kung-fu fighting wise leader of the human resistance showed that black folks can get into this genre as well.  Him being Morpheus helped a little guy named John Boyega be inspired for a role in a small British indie film called Attack The Block, which ultimately led to him playing Finn in the new Star Wars trilogy.  Nowadays, black actors can really get into any genre there is.  Don Cheadle points out that although the system is outdated, executives really care about green as their favorite color.  Such films as Black Panther, The Matrix, and countless others have shown that there is an appetite for black films, and we will expect to see more of them.  The idea that “black films don’t work well overseas” has also been shattered as Nathalie Emmanuel explains the success of The Fast and the Furious franchise, which has one of the most diverse casts, and is about to have its 9th installment of the billion-dollar franchise.

Being produced by the BBC, the third also chapter explores the dynamic between British blacks, and African Americans.  The famous Samuel L Jackson interview bashing black British actors coming in and taking roles away from American black actors was discussed.  Actor Brian J. White describes that many black British actors have a high level of training in not only acting itself, but accents and many other things that qualify them for roles.  Sometimes black actors can get a role based on their good looks and previous work, but folks coming from across the pond have studied acting since childhood and earn their spots.  For example, David Harewood, who plays Martian Manhunter weekly on Supergirl had his breakout role in Blood Diamond, and people didn’t realize he was British until he spoke off-camera.  Eve’s Bayou director Kasi Lemmons comments that she is torn on the subject as the conventional thinking is that black Brits don’t have the American struggle in their DNA to authentically act as black Americans, but of course, she cast British actress Cynthia Erivo (the only actress nominated for an Oscar this year) after this documentary was made, for her film Harriet, so it’s obvious she changed her mind.  David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King in Ava Duvernay’s Selma and actress Carmen Ejogo played Coretta Scott King, are both British actors, who authentically played the two powerhouse figures of the Civil Rights Movement.  Oyelowo recounts that his involvement in the film is actually what brought Duvernay on board as the film’s director, and changed the narrative of the film to focus on King instead of Lyndon B. Johnson as the film originally was supposed to be.  British actors simply have more opportunities to work in films in America due to a larger African American population and more roles available, so they are here to stay as well.

It’s clear the documentary was made some time ago as such people like Jussie Smollett and Cuba Gooding Jr. are no longer favorably viewed in the public eye as of late, and as evidenced by interviewing John Singleton and Diahann Carroll, who both passed away in 2019, but the subject is fascinating and still very relevant.  They Gotta Have Us explores how blacks in film have progressed, but also how there still is work to be done.  Black creatives have to continue pushing the envelope to have their stories told as authentically as possible to achieve true diversity as Hollywood is and always will be what pushes our pop culture forward.  Images in film and TV can help shape society, so the work is hard, but still ongoing.

PS. Lupita should have been nominated for her work in Us this year.

4 out of 5