When you pick up the box for this three-disc documentary set, and read the synopsis on the back, it proclaims, "That's Black Entertainment is a fascinating three-part series that showcases the groundbreaking work of African American talent during the early years of Black cinema." And while that description is fairly accurate, you would be better off replacing the word "fascinating" with something along the lines of "boring" or "poorly executed."
Just as the packaging states, That's Black Entertainment is an examination of blacks in the early days of American film, primarily from the 1920s through to the 1950s. The collection is broken up into three parts -- "Actors," "Comedians," and "Westerns" -- each running just under 60 minutes long. "Actors" focuses largely on Paul Robeson, Spencer Williams, and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. And by the way the whole thing is put together, you would think that these three men constituted 99% of all black films made over a forty-year period (and don't get me started on how lacking this documentary is on anything that happened before 1920). Performers and filmmakers like Noble Johnson, Lorenzo Tucker, Nina Mae McKinney, Richard Hudlin and a whole host of others are either barely mentioned, or not mentioned at all. "Comedians" fares slightly better, and earns points for its inclusion of Bert Williams. But leaving Williams out of any documentary on blacks in comedy would be like leaving the Marx Brothers out of a documentary on white comedy. The problem with this installment of the series, just like the "Actors" segment, is that it leaves out far more than it includes. No documentary can be totally inclusive, but for anyone with a working knowledge of black films, this documentary series will be full of gaping holes. The best of the three chapters is "Westerns," and while it's also not comprehensive, it is more authoritative than the others. Of course, there were far fewer black westerns than dramas or comedies during the era in question, making this portion the easiest to appear thorough. This segment also scores bonus points for featuring an interview with Herbert Jeffries, the black singing cowboy who became a matinee idol during the 1940s.
There are so many problems with That's Black Entertainment that nailing down any one major flaw is impossible (because the whole thing doesn't work). We can start with the interviews. The documentary relies primarily on interviews from three people -- Ossie Davis, William Greaves, and Pearl Bowser -- and while there are other participants, these three constitute the vast majority of all interview footage. For a topic as vast as this, relying ostensibly on three people wouldn't even be acceptable if the interviews were well-conducted, well-lit, and the participants seemed like they wanted to be there. But David, Greaves and Bowser, who have been interesting in other documentaries, don't seem to come across that enthused about their participation. This brings us to our host, Mario Van Peebles. Bringing forth so much lethargic energy it looks like he is about to slip into a coma, Mario comes across like he had three of four bong hits too many before showing up to deliver his lackluster lines. He comes across being even more boring while offering audio commentary to the over-long film clips that TBE relies upon to needlessly waste time. The over-reliance on various film clips is just one more symptom of this poor executed documentary that at its best seems like a mediocre cable access production, and at its worst is the result of lazy/incompetent filmmakers.
The involvement of blacks in the film industry has never been adequately documented, and That's Black Entertainment does little to reverse that problem. Those completely illiterate to the subject matter will be informed (unfortunately they will be bored as well), but those with any sort of historical knowledge will be severely disappointed. Ultimately, despite whatever academic and historical perspective this collection may offer, it is negated by the fact that it is so boring. The team that has put this series together has done the unthinkable, and that's make something that is both important and exciting seem boring and lifeless.