Documentary 'The Black Power Mixtape' offers a trove of rediscovered footage of the movement's luminaries
3:07 pm Jan. 13, 2012
When America was on fire in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Swedish television reporters were here. They covered the Vietnam War and student protests, but the Swedish press had a special place in its heart for the Black Power Movement, so much so that TV Guide was moved to call the Swedes "anti-American" for the slant of their coverage.
Whether they were sympathetic, curious, or a little obsessive, those Swedes left behind important archival footage of figures like Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, and a young Louis Farrakhan. Troves of 16-millimeter film—taken between 1967 and 1975—languished in the basement of Swedish Television for three decades. Now, some of that stunning material has been edited down and repackaged as The Black Power Mixtape, which the Brooklyn Academy of Music is screening on Sunday to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Produced by Danny Glover, The Black Power Mixtape isn't exactly the snappy movie-as-mixtape the title leads you to expect. It's something more like a remix with guest verses, or maybe a rough demo for a multi-layered track of recognizable cues and samples. Anyway, it's more document, or collage of documents, than straightforward documentary.
Director Göran Hugo Olsson, also the writer and editor on the project, wants to make sure long takes of Stokely Carmichael signing books overseas, or hanging out with his mother in Chicago, get the airing they deserve. Some of the footage sans the big personalities of the movement prove more evocative: 1967 interviews with African Americans in the streets of Hallendale, Fla. offer stark snapshots of life in the segregated South. In the film's closing act, a visit to 1975 Harlem features a wrenching monologue from a teenaged junkie-turned-prostitute, minutes after an appearance by a young Louis Farrakahn looking to get the Nation of Islam back on track. These sections bookend the more fragmented use of footage, and mostly familiar narrative, that give the film its sense of purpose (if not structure). Footage of Martin Luther King Jr. appears only after Carmichael, speaking on camera, has explained how M.L.K.'s passive resistance gave way to his generation's increased militancy. King's own radical turn just before his assassination is stitched in via a ?uestlove testimonial, as if this added layer of content were necessary to reinforce the title's indelible hook.
With all due respect to ?uest, Talib Kweli, and John Forte, their thoughts on the past, however earnest, seem more geared at making the film appealing and accessible than bringing clarity to the period. Robin Kelley is the notable exception, as he tries valiantly to sum up everything the film brings together under the rubric of "Black Power."
Angela Davis, whose striking, afro-shaded face is on the movie poster, is also on point. Davis bats for the cycle: She is a major character, the subject of voiceover awe, a narrator, and the star of the most revealing uncovered tape. Interviewed in jail in 1971, Davis offers up one of the few chances to make the audience aware of the film's unlikely chroniclers as she addresses them directly. For much of The Black Power Mixtape, subtitled news features and heavily accented journalists serve as the objective record of the era. Erykah Badu chimes in several times, and it's hard not to think of her "Love of My Life" video, in which, at one point, she takes the stage and is shocked the see that her entire audience is white. Here, a similar awareness comes in the Davis segment. She offers some brutal, if diplomatic, explanations of just how awful life in Bull Connor's Birmingham, Alabama, (her hometown) could be. It's a tone that no American reporter of the time would ever get from Davis; they would have already known and chosen sides long before. Davis also attempts to appeal to the Swedes as more cultured, or at least neutral, parties than their American counterparts; she gets into a long discussion of the exact definition of "revolution." Her instincts are backed up by a preserved feature that casually references Davis' studying with Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. It's a terrific example of the radically different conversations leaders like Davis might have had with the public had reactions to the Black power movement not been so laden with fear, anger, and paranoia.
Davis, in that jail cell, was employing the kind of smart P.R. that made the Panthers such a cultural force. It's not only an impressive artifact—it's a moment that provides a more complex perspective on exactly what "Black Power" stood for, as well as how it looked. Kelley's laundry list of different forms of empowerment, on the other hand, seems tacked on to keep the seemingly arbitrary collection from spinning out of control.
While "1967-1975" encompasses some pivotal moments in American history, it's not a single epoch or story. There's plenty of great material here; it may have been better served in, say, a more open-ended, star-less piece providing room to stretch out and achieve a certain internal consistency, but that's for the next mixtape to attempt.
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