One of the most powerful chapters in the film The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, involves a jailhouse interview with activist Angela Davis. In her full-blown afro and 1970s-style she’s visibly frustrated as she tells a Swedish television interviewer why some black people had chosen to take up arms in the face of police harassment and racism. In her own words she explains how her family was terrorized by bombings in the south.
It’s a strong, stirring moment brought to us in living color, and one of the things that makes Black Power Mixtape an important movie about, not only black history, but world history.
The film has already appeared at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s a documentary that pulls together footage shot by a Swedish television crew investigating U.S. black culture and the Civil Rights movement between 1967 and 1975.The original television footage used to make the piece was found by chance by filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson. Commentary by hip-hop stars and black intellectuals help tie the storyline together.
WATCH THE TRAILER FOR ‘THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE’ HERE:
Olsson was working on a documentary about Philly Soul several years ago when he stumbled on the footage tucked in the basement of the Swedish television archive. He was inspired by the idea of making a mixtape-style documentary to share these historical moments with a worldwide audience.
The director appeared at a special Q&A in New York last week, during Black Power Mixtape’s opening weekend. He took questions from a racially mixed and packed art house theater. He told the crowd how Swedish youth in the 1960s were interested in black civil rights and the anti-war movements. The film isn’t meant to be an in-depth historical account of the black American experience, Olsson said, but rather a way to see black life from the point of view of a Swedish TV crew.
The film’s opening scenes are in Florida, with the Swedish narrator asking a white diner owner about life in America. The discussion moves on to a black Vietnam veteran who talks about coming back home to the same racism and hardship he left when he went to war.
The movie is mostly sympathetic to the plight of black people dealing with poverty, crime and heroin addiction during that era. It also shows the lighter side of political activists like Stokely Carmichael. Olsson wanted to make sure he was crafting an accurate portrayal of African-Americans and approached Danny Glover’s Louverture Films for support. Along with Carmichael and Davis, activists and Black Panther Party leaders Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale also make appearances on film. A very young Minister Louis Farrakhan has his moment explaining the Nation of Islam to the filmmakers. Scholar Robyn D.G. Kelley, in a voice-over, brings it all into context with background on the Nation of Islam and its place within black America at the time.
“The black power movement was one of the first to move beyond single issues and to ultimately reach out to other struggles for social justice like the American Indian Movement (AIM), and the Chicano and feminist movements. In India today, there is a social justice movement by the Dalit (untouchables) caste called the “Dalit Panthers,” wrote Glover’s producing partner Joslyn Barnes.
Erykah Badu’s voice appears throughout the film. She talks about growing up in Texas over images of an impoverished black family that only has enough cereal to feed the smallest child of several. The rest go to get breakfast from the Black Panthers.
Filmmakers presented the Black Panthers in a positive light, showcasing their education and breakfast programs as opposed to images of men with leather jackets and guns that you see in popular entertainment. The Swedish crew was granted unique access to meetings and Panther headquarters in Oakland, Calif.
The film moves to the east coast with images of New York City in the 1960s, which are staggering for their crispness. Staying true to the mixtape format, the film is filled with hip-hop and other music from the era. The soundtrack is produced by Questlove of the Roots and Om’Mas Keith of Sa-Ra, giving it an eclectic feel.
According to press materials, the only thing from the Swedish footage that was cut from the film was of Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 campaign. “I still have sleepless nights for cutting it out,” Olsson is quoted as saying.
The film ends on a light note. With images of 1970s Harlem and Erykah Badu, again in voice-over, calling for more blacks to tell their own stories. Perhaps, to build there own historic visual, audio and textual archives for future generations.