Parents' Guide to

They've Gotta Have Us

By Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media Reviewer

age 14+

Lively, important history in film docuseries; some language.

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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.

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