Which is one of the last countries you'd expect to find sitting on a forgotten treasure trove of insight into America's Black Power movement? If you answered Kazakhstan then I'm afraid you're not a winner today. Sweden, however, is the nation behind this latest montage documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967 - 1975. For decades the archives of Sweden's National Broadcast Company harboured hours and hours of video footage from the journey undertaken by a group of journalists and filmmakers in the sixties and seventies.
Looking to simply document what they saw with as little bias as possible (a pretty impossible task, I have to admit) they wanted to show the rest of Sweden what life was like for young Black Americans fighting for equal rights at the time. Put together by Göran Hugo Olsson, Danny Glover and Joslyn Barnes' team, this film is the compelling if not slightly overreaching result.
Chronology sits at the crux of the Mixtape, pulling us from one year to the next while watching pivotal points unfold. When faced with a mountain of raw material it's really up to editors and ultimately the director to chop and shape them into something that makes sense, and choosing this time-dependent strand has worked in the team's favour.
The film opens with a disembodied introduction to the travelling Swedes, establishing their attempted objective observations on the condition of society in America in the early seventies. Taking into account the foreign policy nightmare that was the Vietnam War, escalating racial tension and the growing question of just what to do with black 'ghettoes', the filmmakers throw the viewer straight into their perception of the inequalities between white and black citizens of the sprawling nation.
King Jr, with singer Harry Belafonte and one of the Swedish reporters
We meet key members of the groups that sprouted from the civil rights movement of the fifties; those looking for another route to social freedoms beyond the non-violent civil disobedience tactics favoured by Dr Martin Luther King Jr and his followers. The powerful, angry yet openly wry voices of the likes of Stokely Carmichael (who coined the term 'black power'), Bobby Seale and Angela Davis are approached with more humanism than usual.
We watch Carmichael interview his own mother in a rare moment of intimacy, nudging her towards explaining the discrepancies of racial law, before watching him sing and joke when off from the podium. It's an eye-opener for a generation used to, at a stretch, seeing grainy footage from King's 'I Have A Dream' speech and understanding little else about the black power struggle.
Kids in Harlem playing in the summer of 1972
The Mixtape segues to the present throughout, overdubbing the 16mm clips with frank, poetic and often very personal reflections from rapper Talib Kweli, singer Erykah Badu and activist Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets among others. It works as a fairly useful device though at times dips into the dangerous territory of conspiracy theory, which could weaken the film's overall impact. Really, the realms of 'conspiracy' go no further than what you'd typically hear at a party with enough tipsy SWP members or Critical Theory uni students but to the standard viewer could present an unnecessary kink in the story's flow.
Academic and activist Angela Davis, rocking her famous fro
Highlights crop up throughout, when Carmichael quips about the heartlessness of the White American state and Talib Kweli describes the FBI's rather interestingly-timed fascination with him when he'd been 'found' listening to Carmichael's speeches. The humourous rhymes dropped by writer and Harlem shop-owner Lewis Michaux are heart-warming too, and nothing in the film can quite compare to Angela Davis' quiet and articulate rage when forced to explain why Black Panthers would choose to arm and defend themselves against the violence inflicted upon them by white supremacists. No wonder that footage is the focus of the trailer.
I couldn't help but feel humbled and touched watching the soft-spoken side to Black Panthers like Huey Newton, Elaine Brown and Seale, while still aware that they saw themselves as warriors who wouldn't shrink back from confrontation. Seale says himself "if any racist pigs come up and attack us, we will kill them" with a deadpan honesty that both chills and inspires. The brutal yet sanguine honesty of the movement leaders we see throughout the film does well to bring home its ultimate point: a country built on freedoms worked systematically to deny them to a section of its population but found ways to hypocritically turn a blind eye.
The Mixtape illustrates pretty damn well why this original footage rubbed up most of the American press the wrong way, and now stands alone as a bold testament to the time. Yes, it may need you to take a trip or two to the library (or Wikipedia) to brush up on the surrounding facts but it’s always great when a film inspires a new set of personal journeys for the viewer. And hey, the mixtape-esque musical interludes go down a treat too.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967 - 75 premieres in London's Ritzy Cinema this Friday, the 21st of October. Click here to find out about UK screenings the following week.