REVIEW: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 [2011]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: April 1st, 2011 (Sweden)
Studio: Story AB / Sundance Selects
Director(s): Göran Olsson
Writer(s): Göran Olsson

“In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none”

In 1972 the United States broke ties with Sweden as their media equated the bombings of Hanoi to Nazism and shortly before that TV Guide’s editor wrote an exposé about the Anti-American sentiments the Scandinavian country was disseminating at will. The Vietnam War was putting strain on relationships worldwide, but from an outsider’s perspective it isn’t hard to imagine the extra vitriol many held for our part in the fight. As far as their depictions of the war occurring within our own borders, I’m not sure there could be anything more pro-American. What’s more American than freedom, equality, and prosperity? The Civil Rights Movement was one full of tragedy, yes, but also of inspiration and reform. Learning that a group of Swedish journalists had come to document what was occurring in the streets of our nation at such a volatile time is intriguing; seeing the footage they captured after years stored away is revelatory.

Göran Olsson‘s The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is a gift. Culled together into nine chapters separated by years in large white serif font superimposed on the screen, this documentary depicts an objective view of our country in a time where such a stance was impossible internally. Touching upon the orations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X, the film continues on to portray the poverty, culture, racism, oppression, and independence all vying for position inside a country fearful of change. Radical ideas are posited as truths are revealed. On one hand, present day interviews from the likes of Questlove and Harry Belafonte hypothesize King’s assassination as sanctioned by a government afraid his evolving militant stance on economy and free education posed a bigger threat than his quest of nonviolence, on the other we discover how programs like free breakfasts for children and free clinics for the poor were created by the Black Panthers.

Being able to look back three decades later allows for introspection and historical relevance where a bombardment of imagery would have only been able to speak for itself in the past. By enlisting luminaries from the black community today as well as surviving activists shown in the film to literally give commentary as Olsson’s work plays, raw footage lost in the basement collecting dust is transformed into a history lesson many would be reluctant to take. We no longer need to sift through a plethora of work depicting this era with a bias of one side or the other as a third party has done the work for us. We still take what we will and leave behind the less intriguing pieces out of line with our opinions, but there’s something to be said about watching through the prism of a culture that really didn’t need to care.

These journalists chose to cross the Atlantic and brave the tumultuous waves of revolution flooding our streets. They were given the opportunity to catch people candidly and at play with they families and friends whom we only equate with powerful speeches and violent acts. Big names like Carmichael, Elderidge Cleaver, Louis Farrakhan, and Angela Davis—the real centerpiece of the work—speak their mind and express their ideas next to the more anonymous characters trying to survive harsh conditions and rampant injustice in the ghetto. Families of five kids are shown making beds as we learn only the two youngest could eat breakfast that day, young prostitutes tell tales of a life they had no choice but to follow, and drug dealers talk honestly about simply making a living. Horrific imagery of heroin babies is shown one second and healthy playful youths jumping rope the next.

Original Swedish introductions and commentary are juxtaposed with voiceovers from the likes of musicians, poets, and activists explaining their views and how those shown were inspiring. Talib Kweli examines how the fiery words of Carmichael are still seen as a threat to the government today in a scary bit of post-9/11 Big Brother tactics by the FBI; Abiodun Oyewole marks 1968 as the year the door opened to begin fighting fire with fire in the Black Power movement; and Erykah Badu rationalizes our greed for excess at the expense of those around us due to being taught the fear of not having enough. John Forté posits the question of whether prisoners have human rights and Courtney Callender calls the Harlem Renaissance a period bred from racism of white men letting “them paint or draw or sing and dance until [they] get tired of it.”

The infinite fascination bred is a testament to the unfettered access given to the cameras. Quotes like Cleaver’s “There’s a point where caution ends and cowardice begins”, Carmichael’s “I was born in jail”, or black bookshop owner Lewis H. Michaux’s “Black is beautiful but black is not power. Knowledge is power.” captivate while facts such as the number of black heroin overdoses in Vietnam are dismay. It’s easy to understand why the black community needed to arm themselves but at the same time criminally tragic to hear a classroom of elementary kids sing the words “Pick up the guns and put the pigs on the run”. Panther founder Huey Newton says, “new leaders are born and new leaders are made” and we accept the fact that without the violent side of the struggle no change might have occurred. It’s a horrible realization, but one with a lot more truth than any desire to gloss over everything as unnecessary pain and anguish.

The Black Power Mixtape puts a face to the rhetoric and shows the community swept up as much as the men and women at its center. For every manufactured moment of sympathy like Carmichael interviewing his mother to coax her into saying the color of her skin made life hard, we watch a bus tour through Harlem that’s hard-pressed to be differentiated from a trip to see wild animals at the zoo. The false imprisonment of Angela Davis for a trumped up charge costing her eighteen months of her life is despicable, but her decency and dignity through education is worth idolizing. A war was indeed fought on American soil and it saw victory through politics and bloodshed alike. We’d love to simplify things into soundbytes fitting our needs, but to see everything unfiltered is something special. Olsson’s work should be required viewing for all Americans to understand this past and maybe one day equality will be more than the meaningless definition so many still refuse to uphold.

[2] Stokely_Carmichael
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