Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
'Black Power' speaks the truth: Film doesn't need to preach
September 30, 2011
By Wesley Morris
One reason people object to "The Help'' is because of movies like "Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975,'' a documentary that comprises footage from Swedish television journalists covering black Americans during the end of the civil rights era and the Vietnam War. The challenge and actual revolution that scare "The Help'' are freshly, thrillingly apparent in "Mixtape.''
For instance, the documentary contains film of Angela Davis. Even in defiance she maintains a stirring placidity that belies reality - she was headed to death row for aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder (a jury eventually found her not guilty). You look at that Afro, hear that commandingly gentle diction (part scholar, part Southerner), and sense her power and you wonder, "Where's the movie about her?'' Actually, you watch the material here and wonder whether most of the movies made about black people are meant to pacify general audiences, to distract them from demanding more of the movies.
Where are the films about black America in the late 1960s and 1970s? Last year, Tanya Hamilton released a tiny drama about a sliver of the movement, with Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, called "Night Catches Us.'' It quickly disappeared. It's an imperfect but ambitious film willing to confront an enormous, complex period in this country. Pending the arrival of another film like Hamilton's, there's "Mixtape.''
Göran Olsson spent years paring down the footage with his co-editor Hanna Lejonqvist. He then showed that material to activists (Harry Belafonte, Sonia Sanchez, Davis) and to Ahmir "?uestlove'' Thompson, Talib Kweli, and Erykah Badu, highly regarded, iconoclastic musicians who, in Olsson's thinking, connect the two eras. The assemblage of images compresses nine turbulent years into 95 minutes. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968 are flashpoints for a social revolution whose urgency waned as drugs flooded black communities, turning blacks away from fighting for justice to fighting each other. In that sense, the film manages to explain how the movies swung from the blaxploitation era to, I don't know, "The Klumps.''
Olsson acknowledges in a disclaimer that his distillation amounts to significantly less than the whole story. But what he's done achieves significance nonetheless. We don't see any of the other interviewees. All we hear is their voices playing over the footage as commentary. The observations are incisive, though Abiodun Oyewole, of the Last Poets, gets a few of his dates wrong (Olsson doesn't correct him, and it almost doesn't matter; the Last Poets were there). Really, it's the footage that astounds and fascinates: Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey P. Newton holding separate news conferences, a group of schoolkids at a kind of black power training academy singing an altered chorus from "Land of 1,000 Dances'' so the "naaa nananana'' is "pick up the guns.'' This country once endured something like an Arab Spring. It was a headache for the government, and the footage makes a compelling case for the assertion of Malcolm X - and many others - that the influx of drugs in those neighborhoods wasn't an accident.
This is a movie that shows us the black experience through European eyes. But the Swedish filter is an important one. Early on we see King Gustav VI warmly receiving Belafonte, Martin Luther King, and Coretta Scott King in 1966. They toured Europe to drum up support for civil rights, and, during that trip, King made an appearance in Vilgot Sjöman's new-wave cult provocation "I Am Curious (Yellow).''
The film later mentions a TV Guide cover story accusing Swedish and Dutch television of anti-Americanism. In the 1960s, those countries enjoyed the luxury of relative societal harmony. The social issues of the day belonged to other countries, and Europe - Scandinavia and the Netherlands, in particular - developed a rather aggravating affinity for ours. So the Swedish journalists came to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. In the '80s, '90s, and 2000s, the Dutch documentary filmmakers - for starters Johan van der Keuken, Heddy Honigmann, and the South-African-born, Dutch-trained Aryan Kaganof (born Ian Kerkhof) - toured the world looking to rub our noses in atrocity and injustice.
Everyone meant well. But in the finished result there was often the stink of condescension and naïveté and a backhanded compassion for the indigent. Behold these poor and oppressed. Look at how not like us they are. How sad! It's how directors like the Danes Lars von Trier ("Manderlay'') and Susanne Bier, who made this year's insufferable foreign-language Oscar winner, "In a Better World,'' can produce movies that decry racism and dehumanization while deploying the tools and tropes of racism and dehumanization.
On the one hand, "Black Power Mixtape'' is a distant relative. It's about the Swedish affinity for and curiosity about black America made with the same affinity. But this isn't a work of propaganda or heart-tugging. Olsson doesn't tell us how to feel. He doesn't have to. His sharing this footage is a moral act whose righteousness can stand on its own. The material obviates the need for an outsider's commentary. It's powerful, vivid, inspiring, demoralizing, and damning enough to speak for itself.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org