Rob Fred Parker– September 30, 2011
Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is a documentary consisting of footage and interviews shot by Swedish filmmakers eager to objectively explore this most significant period of American history. The original footage on display here was captured when a group of Swedes travelled to America ,and sensing that the complex civil rights struggle in the late 60s and early 70s was being alternately ignored or portrayed in the US media as a violent, terrorist movement, they were eager to create an impartial document of the period. Director Göran Hugo Olsson has compiled this footage, which has lied undiscovered for the last three decades and is unseen outside of Sweden, adding contemporary interviews with first hand authorities to accompany the often grainy yet always striking images.
During the late 60s it was becoming clear to countless black Americans that to achieve equality, and even just survive, the non-violent approach, advocated by Martin Luther King and displayed by the legendary bus boycott, was not enough, and could not stand up to the increasingly violent oppression of the U.S. government. 1968 was a pivotal year, and alone saw the assassinations of King, who was adopting a more militant stance in his opposition of the Vietnam war; fervent civil rights campaigner, Robert Kennedy; and activists Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Regarding the shift in stance, influential Black Power pioneer Stokely Carmichael comments, onscreen: "Dr. King's philosophy was that non violence would achieve gains for black people in the U.S. He only made one fallacious assumption: in order for non-violence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The U.S. has none".
The film provides powerful footage of the beginnings of The Black Panther Party, of which Hampton and Clark were prominent members, harrowing images of police attacks, and affecting interviews with Angela Davis, an activist and professor who was held in a murder trial which became 'historic in its injustice', the government's eagerness to quell Black Power overriding the lack of any real evidence to incriminate Davis.
Olsson's use of soundtrack is unobtrusive and subtle, greatly effective throughout. Minimal hip-hop beats and soulful ambient music lie beneath sound-bites and create a cohesive aural motif. Adding to this are the Jackson Five's 'Rockin' Robin', and 'Unwritten' by The Roots, which features throughout (although perhaps too often), band member Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson providing voice-over commentary to many of the film's scenes.
The footage on display here is, at times, difficult to watch, such is its intensity. Scenes capturing violent police attacks in Harlem, an interview with a teenage prostitute, and gaunt newborn babies addicted to heroin, due to the influx of drugs in black communities instigated by the CIA and FBI in hopes to make activists docile, are particularly hard-hitting. In the couple of instances in which the film presents a more abstract approach, it is no less effective. A particularly successful scene arrives in a screen of out-of-focus, fizzing colours. The voice-over discloses of how black people felt severely let down by their government, which failed to offer support to communities struck by poverty, yet spent frivolously on trivial initiatives. As the camera slowly pans out from the extreme-close up, and the letters USA crawl across the screen, we learn that we're watching an American space-shuttle take off. A quote arrives subsequently which sums up this contradiction directly; "It's a tragedy that we live in a society that believes we can go to the moon, but it does not believe that it can cure a drug victim of a malady that the society has caused. That's a disgrace". This scene is perhaps the best critique of the American Space campaign since Gil Scott-Heron's song 'Whitey on the Moon'.
For all the harrowing images, the film's celebration of the achievements and ultimate legacy of the Black Power movement is, however, greatly uplifting, due to the unrelenting strength and conviction of those interviewed (especially the unjustly condemned Angela Davies). The Black Panther Party actively promoted structured education and unity within and between communities, and their initiatives, such as providing breakfasts for students before school (which was labelled 'the greatest threat to the internal security of this country' by J. Edgar Hoover in 1969, yet eventually adopted by the American government) had a profound effect, not only in America. The positive influence the movement has on subsequent liberation movements, such as second wave feminism and gay equality campaigns, is also evidenced convincingly.
"We, as black people, have to tell our own stories. We have to document our history. When we allow someone else to document our history, the history becomes twisted – and we get written out", a sound-bite declares during the film. The commitment and balance of the Swedish group of filmmakers who captured the original material, as well as that of director Olsson, go a long way in making sure their subject's' aren't written out. Their sincere interest and relative impartiality has produced a reasonably objective, engaging documentary, which will stand alongside recreational films such as Malcolm X by Spike Lee (1992), the TV mini-series King (directed by Abby Mann, 1978), and particularly Geoff Small's 2008 documentary Black Power Salute, which centred upon black American athletes at the 1968 Olympics, as a document of an incredibly important period in for civil rights. Recent cases, such as the contentious execution of Georgia citizen Troy Davies, strongly suggest the message of the Black Power campaigners is very much relevant today.
Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 will show at the BFI London Film Festival on the 14th and 17th October