Mitchell, Elvis

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Elvis Mitchell


Film critic

Elvis Mitchell is a film critic whose reviews have aired on National Public Radio and appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and other media outlets. He began his career in the early 1980s and over the years has gained a loyal following among audiences who appreciate the way his reviews reference other films and moments in pop culture. In addition, Mitchell's commentaries on the intersection of African-American culture and Hollywood have earned him celebrity in his own right and brought him to the faculty of Harvard University. "Part of my job is about stirring up trouble—to get people to think about what they're seeing" Mitchell explained to Ryan Underwood in Fast Company. "The real thrill for me is going to film festivals. That's where I can be most useful—alerting people to the great movies that are out there."

Mitchell grew up in a family of nine children in Highland Park, Michigan. This small city is enclosed almost entirely within the borders of Detroit, and its early twentieth-century housing stock resembles that of the larger city, with single- and two-family homes built for a growing working-class population that moved to Michigan seeking work in the city's auto plants. Mitchell's parents were part of that migration, leaving Mississippi in the late 1940s, a decade before he was born. Unable to find one of the more lucrative auto-plant jobs, his father worked two other blue-collar positions. During the day, Lou Mitchell worked at a local dairy plant, then he went to a nightshift job at a laundry. "My father bought me freedom; he worked like a convict most of his adult life and never complained about it, barely missing a day," Mitchell wrote in a New York Times article about returning to his hometown to work two shifts at the same kinds of businesses. He did so, he explained, because "somewhere in my heart I have always wondered if I could live up to my father's example."

Began Reviewing Films in College

After high school Mitchell won a theater department scholarship to Wayne State University in Detroit, but was dismayed to discover he had little in common with his fellow students there and dropped out for a time. However, he went back—as he told David Mills in an interview on the Web blog Undercover Black Man,—"after being out of school for six months and not wanting to go work in an auto plant," one of the few options open to a young African-American male in Detroit during the late 1970s. He switched his major to English and planned to go on to law school. A chance opportunity to review films for the city's public radio station opened some doors, but it was his unexpected friendship with the legendary film critic Pauline Kael that proved a harbinger of his future. Kael was a formidable figure as the New Yorker's film reviewer from 1968 to 1991, but was also known for befriending and mentoring young critics. As Mitchell recalled in the interview with Mills, Kael visited Detroit on a press tour, and Mitchell knew someone at the television station where she was slated to give an interview. "I showed up at this station and she was sitting in the lobby by herself," he told Mills. "I sat down next to her and we just started talking. Then they said, ‘Okay, Miss Kael, you're on.’ And she grabbed me by the arm to take me with her. I said, ‘I'm not on the show with you.’ She said, ‘I know. Just come with me.’"

Kael later wrote a letter of recommendation for Mitchell urging the daily newspaper the Detroit Free Press to hire him. However, the paper turned him down. Mitchell's first full-time job in journalism was with a suburban Detroit newspaper as its television critic, but he soon moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Returning to Detroit briefly in 1987 for a short stint as the Free Press film critic, Mitchell went on to freelance for a variety of publications—among them the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Spin—and began a long association with National Public Radio as film and television critic for Weekend Edition and other news programs.

In 1997 Mitchell moved to a full-time job with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas, but was lured away two years later by the New York Times. The national newspaper's chief film critic, Janet Maslin, was stepping aside, and Mitchell was one of three new critics hired to replace her, though none was given the same title as Maslin had held. Mitchell soon gained an avid readership for his entertaining reviews, often laden with references to other films and works from the pop-culture universe. He called the Russell Crowe epic Gladiator "grandiose and silly" and a film that "suggests what would happen if someone made a movie of the imminent extreme-football league and shot it as if it were a Chanel commercial"; Mitchell described the 2002 science-fiction thriller Minority Report by Steven Spielberg as "magnificently creepy, a calculated bad dream that stays with you like the best of Roger Corman."

Wrote about Racial Issues

In addition to his lively writing style, Mitchell also earned respect as a commentator on racial issues connected with the film and entertainment industry. Mitchell analyzed the career of actor Denzel Washington in London's Observer newspaper in 2000, noting that "Washington has been compared with Sidney Poitier, and the two men share a lionhearted pride, a stubbornness fuelled by a core of anger." Mitchell termed Washington's portrayal of Malcolm X in the 1992 biographical film of the same name, "perhaps the best performance of the Nineties. His evolution from dissolute to resolute, from convict to conviction is magnificent." In conclusion, Mitchell asserted that the actor "sliced his way through the film business's institutional indifference to blacks during a forgettable decade of film, and almost single-handedly revived the black matinee idol/ideal, a title that had been retired since Billy Dee Williams saw leading man roles wither and had to turn to selling malt liquor on American TV."

At a Glance …

Born in 1958 in Detroit, MI; son of Lou Mitchell (a dairy-plant and industrial laundry employee) and a homemaker. Education: Wayne State University, BA, c. 1982.

Career: WDET-FM, film reviewer, c. 1982; Oakland Press, television writer, 1983; Los Angeles Herald Examiner, film critic; Detroit Free Press, film critic, 1987; Weekend Edition, National Public Radio, film and television critic, c. 1987-88, and occasional film critic and commentator, 1988—; Fort Worth Star-Telegram, film critic, 1997-99; New York Times, film critic, 2000-04; Harvard University, visiting lecturer in film and African-American studies, 2004—; The Treatment, KCRW-FM, host; Columbia Pictures, executive production consultant, 2005—; producer of The Black List, a documentary film, 2008.

Addresses: Office—c/o KCRW-FM, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90405.

Mitchell also introduced social commentary into his reviews in the New York Times, including the description of an alarming incident at the Toronto Film Festival in 2001, when he was mistaken for a street criminal. Following a screening he was standing outside a venue with some friends, when, as he wrote, "I looked up to find myself surrounded by four police officers, two standing on a concrete abutment behind me with their hands resting near their guns." He was told there had been just been a robbery in the area, and the suspect was a man matching his description—tall, black, and sporting dreadlocks. His friends and other eyewitnesses vouched for his whereabouts during the previous hour, and finally the search moved on. "I've been stopped by police almost in every state I've ever been in," he told Mills in Undercover Black Man. "But I'd never had a cop pull a gun on me before."

Mitchell left the New York Times in a well-publicized departure in the spring of 2004 after another writer was promoted to chief film critic at the paper. "I just never thought I was a Times kind of writer," he conceded to Mills. "And I think my being there, I hope it opened doors and changed some people's perceptions. Because I know after I got there, whenever I got asked to do a speaking engagement, especially at a high school or something, I always went because I thought kids should see my example and see that if I can do this, they can do it too."

Produced First Film

By the time Mitchell left the New York Times, he had a position at Harvard University as a visiting lecturer in film and African-American studies, which had been arranged by his friend Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Mitchell was also the host of a weekly program called The Treatment, which was based at the public radio station KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, California. In 2005 he signed with Columbia Pictures as an executive production consultant and began work on an epic project called The Black List with director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Mitchell served as a writer and producer of the documentary, which featured his interviews with twenty notable African Americans, from entertainment mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs to former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Mitchell was philosophical about the career success he had known. Writing in the New York Times about his experience working his father's two jobs for a day in 2000, he concluded that both jobs were equally back-breaking—especially in comparison with his cushy life watching movies for a living. When he ended his long day, he called his now-retired father in Arizona, who told him, "I know I don't have to tell you I worked those jobs so you didn't have to." Reflecting back on the sacrifices his parents made, he admitted to being "a little overcome, having put myself in his shoes. It was important to him that I lead my own life, and tasting of a bit of his had made my own make a lot more sense to me."



Fast Company, February 2003, p. 51.

New York, May 3, 2004.

New York Times, May 5, 2000, p. E1; September 24, 2000; September 20, 2001; June 21, 2002, p. E1.

Observer (London, England), March 12, 2000, p. 6.


"Q&A: Elvis Mitchell (Pt. 1)," Undercover Black Man, March 5, 2007, (accessed March 5, 2008).

"Q&A: Elvis Mitchell (Pt. 2)," Undercover Black Man, March 7, 2007, (accessed March 5, 2008).

—Carol Brennan

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Mitchell, Elvis

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