Guess who’s been sitting on a treasure trove of footage about America’s Black Power Movement? The answer might surprise you. Director Goran Hugo Olsson mined Swedish television vaults to piece together a rich document in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. Winner of the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, The Black Power Mixtape intercuts vintage scenes of Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis with commentary from contemporary rappers like Questlove, Erykah Badu and Talib Kweli. This sobering peek into a buried movement illuminates why hip-hop arose from urban New York City in the mid-’70s. Yet the cool reserve of the Swedes keeps this doc from generating the heat it deserves.
Reporters from Sweden followed America’s civil rights struggle and black consciousness raising. They popped in irregularly, capturing isolated but telling moments in the Movement. In the film, we see a few choice vignettes in 16mm from each year between 1967 and 1975. Images of Martin Luther King and Harry Belafonte meeting with King Gustaf VI Adolph of Sweden suggest a world of promise. But the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. King show why the call for active black resistance escalated. The Black Power Mixtape repeatedly connects the dots between racism and military might. Opposition to Martin Luther King escalated once his criticism was extended towards the Vietnam War. Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets sees that “the death of MLK was a declaration of war on us.”
The Swedes’ outsider status gave them more objectivity than the American media at the time. The humane, unguarded scenes they captured, like Stokely Carmichael interviewing his mother on camera, are compelling. She offers brief answers about his father’s experience, coming as a carpenter from Trinidad to America. Dad was always the first person laid off the job. It suggests so much about the fire that animated Carmichael’s calls for “Black Power.” A telling quote from Carmichael: “In order for non-violence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.” Yet, the simplicity of the interview setting shows how utterly calm, ordinary, and self-effacing this seemingly radical leader could be at home. Talib Kweli observes, “He was just a regular dude.”
Swedish cameras also got inside the Black Panther’s Oakland headquarters circa 1969. Bobby Seale promotes “All power to all the people” and kids chant, “Pick up the gun.” J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI declares the Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program the most dangerous internal threat to America. Arrests and prosecution follow. The Panthers’ efforts to arm themselves for self-defense, interestingly, sound similar to today’s far-right militia movements. Reporters find Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria, where the Panthers organize in exile. Huey Newton emerges from his trial by declaring, “I was a prisoner of war.” In a humorous sidebar, TV Guide calls the Swedes’ sympathetic interviews with the Panthers “anti-American.” After King Olaf compares the U.S. bombings in Hanoi to Nazi massacres, America severs diplomatic ties to Sweden.
The most riveting character in the documentary is Angela Davis. How did a UCLA philosophy professor end up on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list? While The Black Power Mixtape doesn’t fill in all the details about the Soledad Brothers that led to her arrest and trial, it does allow her to speak from prison about whether she is violent. Having grown up in Birmingham, Ala., where four little girls were murdered in the bombing of a black church, Davis can hardly dignify the question. Having grown up under attack, she struggles to enter into the headspace that labels her a terrorist. This previously unseen interview especially resonates in our post 9/11 context.
Why did the Black Power movement subside? The filmmakers ignore the political infighting that can undermine even the loosest organizations. Drugs are identified as the means to placate an angry people. The ’70s are portrayed as a lost decade, where heroin floods the streets of Harlem. Vietnam veterans return home as addicts. Leaders’ focus gets fuzzy. And the war on drugs becomes a war against a particular community. A young Louis Farrakhan emerges as an alternative voice, calling people to a life of discipline. Stories of teen prostitutes and babies born to junkies are heartbreaking to see. By 1975, The Black Power Mixtape shifts from militancy to dependency and ultimately despondency. But poet Sonia Sanchez notes, “You can’t be tired. This is a lifetime job.” It is a moderately hopeful ending, paving the way for rappers’ protests to follow. The Black Power Mixtape offers a steady drumbeat for justice, but it is more of an introduction than an analysis. The parts never quite coalesce into a complete picture. But this poignant, alternative history will spark a hunger for knowledge. And as Harlem bookseller Lewis Micheaux reminds us, “Knowledge is power.”