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Angela Davis interviewed in prison in THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-1975 (Photo: IFC Films)

THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-1975
Written & Directed by Göran Hugo Olsson
Produced by Gina Kwon, Roman Paul & Gerhard Meixner

Produced by Annika Rogell
Released by Sundance Selects
Sweden. 100 min. Not rated
 

Straight outta the basement of Swedish national television, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 showcases vivid archival footage from a time when African-American advocates, including the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam, were not shown so up close and personal in their own country.

Director Göran Hugo Olsson culls the intimate images and interviews produced by more than a dozen Swedish TV journalists as they sought to explain to their audience what was roiling African Americans in the U.S. (At the time, America’s bestselling magazine was TV Guide, published by Nixon ally Walter Annenberg, who criticized Swedish TV’s point of view as “out of focus.”) The Swedes captured daily lives from Florida to Harlem and Oakland. They add period context to the emphatic statements of movement leaders, whether they were visiting Stockholm, in their home headquarters, in exile in Africa, and even in jail.

The chronological, year by year clips are presented like chapters in a history book covering the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, rebellions, and government crackdowns. But several interviews and scenes, not seen since their original broadcast, manage to get beneath the standard fare and usual rhetoric, despite being presented within an awkward format—a 1970’s audio “mixtape” playing over a commentary of uneven insights and interpretations by a mixed bag of activists, writers, and performers.

Stokely Carmichael is seen in 1967, after the publication of his book, Black Power, which brought the term and the movement wide attention. During his interview with his mother, she says “colored,” while he says “black.” He uses her reminisces about his Trinidadian father to quietly raise her consciousness about why her husband could never make enough money to support their family. From a contemporary perspective, hip hop artist Talib Kweli is surprised to see Carmichael “being a regular dude” and by his criticisms of Martin Luther King’s Montgomery bus boycott as too passive.

While the voice of Angela Davis today is frequently heard dispassionately tying together scenes, a high point is her 1972 jail house interview before her murder trial. She emotionally describes how she and her family were directly affected by the 1963 church bombing that killed her neighbors in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama: “I remember our house shaking.” In tight close-ups with her crowning Afro, her ascending monologue about violence begetting violence not only supplements Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls (1997), but should inspire a compare-and-contrast bio doc of Davis and Condoleezza Rice, who has also cited that same childhood community experience as inspiring her career choices.

Eloquent interviews with Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton, on the Black Panthers, and Louis Farrakhan, about the Nation of Islam, are pretty much formal statements of their positions on race, albeit not ones they were able to present on mainstream U.S. TV at the time. The filming inside the Panthers’ Oakland headquarters shows the organization’s impact on a future generation and why a threatened FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is quoted as calling the group dangerous—children down their free breakfasts and then chant Black Panther slogans, while their teacher explains their revolution education curriculum. And in the east, busloads of formally dressed students pour into schools under the watchful eyes of bow-tied brothers of the Nation of Islam.

With Davis and other commentators blaming the government for the flood of drugs that drowned the revolution, the day-in-the-life images change from a visit to Lewis Michaux’s National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem to drive-alongs with police amid poignant testimonies of hunger and addiction. (I was reminded of a woman, who grew up in the Soviet Union, laughing about how students would get extra points in current events class for bringing in negative articles about the U.S.) But for every brief insight by the likes of Harry Belafonte and Abiodun Oyewole, one of the writer/performers with the Last Poets, the commentators include singer Erykah Badu, who adds little to the discussion. Without the didactic history lessons, the Swedish journalists’ footage stands alone as the primary reason to see these passionate activists in their own words and in their prime. Nora Lee Mandel
September 16, 2011

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