Directed by: Göran Olsson
Starring: Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Abiodun Oyewole
This telling look into the Black Power movement, culled from untold hours of 16mm footage shot by Swedish journalists from 1967-1975, is one of this year’s most interesting documentaries. Yes, as is common with most documentaries, it doesn’t quite know when—or in this case, maybe how—to quit, but most of its 96 minutes are nothing short of fascinating. That it happens to be released at a time when we appear to be experiencing a new rise in social activism makes it all the more relevant—and even more likely to anger some viewers than it already would have. Given the right (or the wrong) audience, I can imagine this being incredibly contentious stuff.
For anyone who was alive during this time (I was 21 in 1975 and a lot of the documentary’s earlier material was only vaguely familiar to me), the basic arc of the film —the highlights, if you will—will be familiar. (Though calling the assassinations, riots, arrests, dubious charges etc. of the era “highlights” paints an incorrect image.) What will be less familiar is the point of view. I remember the time well enough to know that American television reported on all this, but, unlike the Swedish journalists, never did much in the way of showing us the Black Power side of the story. I could be misremembering some of that, of course, but I certainly do not remember ever seeing Angela Davis at her most articulate or Stokely Carmichael as just a plain guy. It’s revelatory.
It can and has been argued that the Swedish journalists were naïve at best, and just plain anti-American at worst. The film clearly addresses the latter, responding to an article by the right-wing editor of TV Guide that branded Swedish television in exactly those terms. It’s telling that they interviewed the editor, too, evidencing an interest in hearing from any and all sides.
The Black Power Mixtape is hardly a comprehensive look at those years, and it never pretends to be. Instead, it’s a look back into an aspect of those times that was never made so accessible before. The impact of that era is addressed by modern commentary from younger people who have been in some way impacted by the key players of the Black Power movement. Musicians like Erykah Badu and John Forte are present, as are poets Sonia Sanchez and Abiodun Oyewole, to help make it clear to modern viewers what this period meant to their development. But what is most impressive about the film is that it manages to put human faces—not just caricatures—on the key figures of the movement. At the same time, it points out some of the foolishness of the U.S. government’s response to the Black Power movement, like J. Edgar Hoover claiming that a Black Panther free breakfast program was the single greatest internal threat to America. My suggestion is simply to see the movie for yourself with an open mind. Not Rated