“The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975” sounds like a rap album, but it’s really a rap sheet on the U.S., summarizing the abuses and prejudices heaped on African Americans during those years as described by African Americans and chronicled/interpreted by Swedish journalist-filmmakers. It’s a brave, unofficial and impressionistic history of the Black Power movement that America at one point tried to suppress–an informal history that could only be told by outsiders.
That’s one view of this 2011 documentary, which was edited from vintage footage shot by Swedish news and film crews, some of it quite astounding. The flip side, of course, is that this documentary is anti-American because it’s one-sided, emphasizing only the negatives and the black activist point of view.
I don’t know how much play a film like this is going to get in individual households, but I can already envision it having a long and successful run in college classes dealing with American history, protest movements, race relations, and sociology. Names from the headlines come to life in film clips of press conferences, trials, private interviews, and walk-and-talks.
We see Stokely Carmichael (a.k.a. Kwame Ture), a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later a “prime minister” of the Black Panther Party, not just delivering speeches and talking to newsmen, but also hanging out with friends and interviewing his mother for Swedish journalists.
“[Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s] major assumption was that if you are non-violent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and be moved to change his heart,” Carmichael says. “That is very good. He only made one fallacious assumption. In order for non-violence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”
Director Göran Olsson at one point says in voiceover that “Many think that the U.S. was too late in providing social programs for 30 million people living in poverty.” It’s meant to suggest a common European outsider view, and certainly a humanistic one. But I found myself wondering if it was indeed a common view of America at the time, or just an overgeneralization. Without some proof or context, it’s hard to tell. And, of course, there’s an entire political party in this country that is still vehemently against any sort of social program for the underprivileged because “that’s socialism,” and it has no place in a capitalist culture. So goes the thinking for half of the U.S., and in at least one respect, things haven’t changed all that much since the Black Power movement of the ‘60s.
Filmmakers show clips of neighborhoods of small, rundown homes, and go inside one of them to see a black woman trying to get her 10 children off to school and explaining that there’s no milk for breakfast. Of course, they probably knocked on a lot of doors before they found a woman with that many kids living in tiny quarters, but when Carmichael interviews his mother he asks her about the apartment she lived in when he was a baby, and there were almost as many people crammed into that tiny living space. Why didn’t they have enough money, Carmichael keeps asking, prodding her. And it comes out that because her husband was “colored,” he was always the first carpenter to be laid off. Again, hearsay evidence, but you believe it when you see some of the images in this film and listen to other stories.
Some of the most striking images allow you to draw your own conclusions, free from voiceover narration. I was shocked to see the Black Panther Headquarters in Oakland, California, for example . . . just a rundown small house in a rundown neighborhood. Equally memorable was footage of very small black children singing a song about guns and revolution, indoctrinated by lessons that preached violence if necessary. And on the flipside of that, a line of Muslim children filing onto a bus, each of them dressed as sharply as Louis Farrakhan, being taught that peace and non-violence was the only acceptable attitude and behavior. We see the Black Panther headquarters in Harlem, too, and there’s film of Harry Belafonte and Dr. and Mrs. King in Stockholm meeting the King of Sweden. There are so many press conferences and visits to Sweden that you begin to realize that this nation completely supported the Black Power movement, at least in spirit.
We see Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party, talking about “Oink” Nixon, “Oink” Humphrey, and “Oink” Wallace, who “represent the very worst traditions of this bankrupt country. We also see Bobby Seale on camera in Stockholm saying “we have arms” and are prepared to use them, and we hear how in 1970 the FBI launched Cointelpro, a covert operation to break the back of the Black Power movement. And we see Angela Davis showing up for her trial and talking about the charges against her—this woman who had become the #3 Most Wanted fugitive in America. We watch Huey P. Newton as he arrives for the Black Panthers trial, and learn how TV Guide published an article accusing Holland and Sweden of being anti-American because of their one-sided media coverage. And if you’re thinking “Why would TV Guide be involved, this documentary provides an answer: the publisher was then ambassador to the U.K. and one of Nixon’s closest advisors.
There’s so much riveting footage and so many thoughtful interviews–intercut with interviews conducted in 2010 with some of the same people, as well as professors and more traditional “talking heads”—that you have to wonder how and why the documentary starts to veer off-track near the end. As you watch film about the Attica prison riots, which may have been touched off by a racial incident, the segment goes on way too long and seems to stray from the notion of a Black Power movement. Same with a long segment about a heroin-addicted newborn (the most pathetic and heart-wrenching image of this documentary). How, again, does it relate to the Black Power movement?
For the most part, though, this documentary is worth watching because of the vintage footage, and because someone thought to capture on film almost all of the principal figures of the Black Power movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. And that’s pretty good, considering “The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975” begins with a disclaimer saying it’s not attempting to be a comprehensive documentary of the movement, but rather footage accompanied by commentary of how certain Swedish filmmakers saw the movement.
As you might expect with a documentary like this, with source materials gathered from a nine-year period, the quality varies considerably. The roughest segment is one featuring Malcolm X, but who cares when the footage is so rare? Presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, “The Black Power Mixtape” includes 96 minutes of film shot in both black and white and color.
The audio too is nothing special by today’s standards–a Dolby Digital English 2.0 Mono, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. You’d think that there would be Swedish subtitles, but nope.
Included here are three interview outtakes with Angela Davis, Rep. Shirley Chisholm, and Louis Farrakhan, along with a 1975 interview featuring Joan Little, who stood trial for the 1974 murder of a white prison guard. Rounding out the short but interesting bonus features is a brief segment with Stokely Carmichael and two Swedes.
“The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975” offers some amazing footage and a surprisingly cohesive narrative, considering that this was old film stock newly discovered and reassembled by contemporary Swedish filmmakers. It’s recommended for students of black history in America and the just plain curious.