The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
“The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975,” among other things an extraordinary feat of editing and archival research, takes up a familiar period in American history from a fresh and fascinating angle. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Swedish television journalists traveled to the United States with the intention of “showing the country as it really is.” Some of the images and interviews they collected have been assembled by Goran Hugo Olsson into a roughly chronological collage that restores a complex human dimension to the racial history of the era.
The film begins at a moment when the concept ofblack power was promoted by Stokely Carmichael, a veteran of the freedom rides early in the decade, who, like many young black activists, had grown frustrated with the Gandhian, nonviolent philosophy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Carmichael, who later moved to Guinea and took the name Kwame Ture, is remembered for the militancy of his views and his confrontational, often slashingly witty speeches, but the Swedish cameras captured another side of him. In the most touching and arresting scene in “Mixtape,” he interviews his mother, Mable, gently prodding her to talk about the effects of poverty and discrimination on her family.
That quiet conversation is a reminder that the inflammatory rhetoric of the black power movement, with its talk of revolution, national liberation and armed struggle, had its roots in bitter experience. And while “The Black Power Mixtape” tells a story of defiance and pride, it is also a tale of defeat, frustration and terrible destruction. The assassination of Dr. King, the grinding toll of the Vietnam War, the Attica prison uprising, the spread of heroin in the ghettoes of northern cities: these are not chapters in a tale of triumph. At one point a camera crew goes to visit the editor of TV Guide, which had published an article accusing the European news media — and Sweden’s in particular — of presenting an overly negative view of American society. Mr. Olsson’s film does not entirely refute that charge, but the impression it leaves is of a compassionate curiosity, a willingness to listen that Americans have not always, then or now, afforded one another. The voices of contentious, well-known figures like Angela Davis and Louis Farrakhan are heard, as are those of ordinary residents of Harlem, Brooklyn and Oakland, Calif.
As its title suggests, “The Black Power Mixtape” is not a comprehensive history. Its impressionistic visual record of recent history is accompanied by the present-day reflections of participants in that history and younger people who have been influenced by it. Ms. Davis, the poet Sonia Sanchezand Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets muse on the meaning and legacy of black power, as do the musicians Erykah Badu, Questlove, John Forté and others.
Their words sometimes deepen the viewer’s appreciation of what is on screen, though at other times the nuances and contradictions of the past outstrip the didacticism of the commentary. But the fact that the speakers’ faces are never seen produces a feeling of estrangement that is crucial to the film’s effectiveness. You become acutely aware of gaps and discontinuities: between slogans and realities, between political ideals and stubborn social problems, between then and now.
And you are left in a bracing state of confusion, wondering how much has changed and how the change took place. How did we get from the America of Stokely Carmichael to the America of Barack Obama, who represents a very different kind of black power? To what extent is it the same America? Perhaps there are some visitors from Sweden out there who can help us make sense of it all.
Source: The New York Times link