They've Gotta Have Us

TV review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
They've Gotta Have Us TV Poster Image
Lively, important history in film docuseries; some language.

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The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

The value of representation, diversity, and inclusion are made clear through probing and sensitive interviews with artists. Strong messages of perseverance, integrity, and courage come through in stories about artists who managed to make a dent in a hostile milieu. One subject notes that the most important color to the film industry is "green," i.e. films that make money are viewed positively no matter what they're about or who stars in/makes them. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

All of the people interviewed in They've Gotta Have Us are successful in their careers, sending strong messages about the intelligence, thoughtfulness, and hard work that got them where they are. The group of interviewees is diverse in terms of age, gender, and sexual identity, with time spent talking about the different struggles faced by men and women of color, particularly queer ones. Expect to see some shocking images, such as racist cartoons and footage from films with stereotypical characters, and to hear racist rhetoric repeated in a critical way, like a subject who says the attitude in England in the 1950s was "Black people should go back where they came from." 


Violence is confined to short scenes from movies, such as a scuffle from Black Panther


Sexual content generally arrives in excerpts from films, such as a scene from She's Gotta Have It in which a man and woman are seen kissing in bed in a prelude to sex (no nudity). Some interviews also contain sexual content, like an interview who talks about his attempt to subtly depict an orgasm onscreen, or another recalling how he edited his independent film in a studio typically used by adult film directors. An actor jokes about being told to "hold his cock" in a scene with a racist director. 


Language is infrequent, but is found in some interviews and film excerpts: "hell," "s--t," "c--k," "bulls--t," "f--king," "motherf--ker." There's also some racist language, as when an adult actor of color is called "boy" by another character in a film. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adult movie characters have wine and cocktails; an actor talks about toasting a friend who won an Oscar with Cristal champagne. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that They've Gotta Have Us is a docuseries that traces the evolution of black filmmaking. Interviews with luminaries such as Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins send strong messages of perseverance, integrity, and courage, as viewers realize how hard they had to work to get where they are. The series also makes the value of representation and inclusion clear by demonstrating how pioneering artists inspired others to tell their own stories. All of the interviewees are successful, and diverse in terms of age, gender, and sexual identity. The series spends time talking about the plight of artists of color, including men, women, and queer artists. Some images are shocking, such as racist cartoons and film excerpts that show stereotypical characters; some language is also racist, like when Sidney Poitier, an adult man of color, is called "boy" by a contemptuous character. Excerpts also contain cursing ("hell," "s--t," "c--k," "bulls--t," "f--king," "motherf--ker"), some violence (such as a scuffle from Black Panther) and sexual content (a man and woman kissing in bed, no nudity, in She's Gotta Have It). A few excerpts also show adult characters drinking wine and cocktails; no one acts drunk. Overall, the series' tone is positive and validating; viewers will be fascinated by what they learn while watching. 

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What's the story?

After decades in which black filmmakers were relegated to the sidelines, and black actors were forced to play racist caricatures and side characters (if they appeared on screen at all), films made by and featuring people of color are experiencing a new mainstream cultural acceptance. THEY'VE GOTTA HAVE US takes the viewer both back and forward in time with intimate interviews from dozens of subjects from the film world, investigating the early contributions of entertainers like Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit, the efforts of filmmakers like Spike Lee and Robert Townsend in the '80s and '90s, and modern directors experiencing breakthroughs like Jordan Peele and Barry Jenkins

Is it any good?

Powerful, sensitive, and fascinating, this docuseries focuses on a serious, important topic, but its talking-head interviews are so lively and fresh that it's a joy to watch instead of ponderous. Film lovers may come to They've Gotta Have Us thinking they know what they're about to see -- it's no news to anyone that gifted early black entertainers had to play mammies and butlers, and viewers will be duly horrified to learn that Hattie McDaniel, the first woman of color to win an Oscar, had to sit in a segregated seat in the audience before and after she won, and intrigued to see examples of Harry Belafonte subtly expressing sexuality onscreen at a time when black romantic leads weren't allowed to get physical.

But things really get interesting once the series moves beyond the early years of Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier, and Dorothy Dandridge. Robert Townsend, whose 1987 film Hollywood Shuffle was a landmark of independent black filmmaking, recalls how frustrated he was after not getting cast in The Color Purple, knowing it might be awhile before another meaty part would be available to him, considering how few films had black casts. He'd saved $60,000 and he had a burning ambition to make his own movie: "We can't let Hollywood tell our stories," he says passionately, "We gotta tell our own stories. They'll make us do anything and everything, and these images go all around the world." And soon, the vital importance of representation becomes clear, as directors, actors, and cinematographers ruminate on Spike Lee's triumphant string of successes in the 1980s and 1990s. As director John Singleton recalls, "The day I saw Do the Right Thing, I got a notebook and started writing Boys n the Hood." Will the next generation of great black actors and filmmakers go get themselves a notebook after watching They've Gotta Have Us? It wouldn't be a surprise at all. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about positive and negative representations of African-American culture that they've seen in the movies. What movies stand out as validating black lives and experiences? Which give negative, false, racist, offensive representations? Are there any movies you enjoy that have less-than-positive representations? Does it affect your enjoyment of these films? 

  • Watch a few of the movies that are spotlighted in They've Gotta Have Us, such as Hollywood Shuffle, Do the Right Thing, or Carmen Jones. How were these movies breakthroughs? What do they show that other, lesser movies don't? Do they still have power, or are they dated? Are there any ways these movies still seem modern and fresh? 

  • How do the subjects in They've Gotta Have Us display courageintegrity, and perseverance? Why do you think these are important character strengths

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