The 2011 Documentary Pastiche Address Civil Rights Then and Now.
DIRECTED BY GÖRAN HUGO OLSSON/2011
Black Power Mixtape does not succumb. It is a documentary that chronicles an American historical time and movement that is known for an unyielding confrontational spirit and raw volatility. So it’s only fitting that the Swedish filmmakers of Black Power Mixtape, working a pastiche of surprisingly well-preserved archival footage, do not submit to the established expectations of documentary filmmaking. Not only are there no talking head interviews (all modern-day commentary is provided via identified voice-over – a change of pace that works refreshingly well), there is no soundtrack of correspondingly incendiary period pop music. While I admit to having a weakness for the kind of rockin’ protest footage montages that we’ve all seen umpteen times (most often set to “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones), the unapologetic absence of any such device here really exposes the amount of underhanded romanticizing they put forth.
But the revolutionaries (including Angela Davis, Huey Newton, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others) in Black Power Mixtape are not unduly romanticized or deified. Rather, seen purely through the eyes and lenses of the Swedish television crews that unceremoniously captured these images from 1967 to 1975, these outspoken, revered and vilified individuals are, above all else, humanized. Witness outspoken “enemy of the state” Stokely Carmichael chilling with his sweet mother, even as he gently commandeers the interview. Or footage of MLK chilling with Harry Belafonte, behind the scenes of another appearance, rally, or speech. Or feared intellectual firebrand Angela Davis chilling with a cigarette and a journalist while incarcerated. These are the truer faces of a vital swath of counter-culture history than we are usually presented with. At least, that seems to be one of the film’s intended bottom lines.
The presentational approach is deceptively simple – we’re shown a lot of chunks of different batches of film, thematically linked (but no more linked than that), in order. And it works. When the grainy, mildly artful archival footage is melded with filmmaker Göran Olsson’s appropriately dialed-back use of white on-screen titles and pacing, a certain visual splendor, elusive in other such projects, is the result. A simple yet sharp graphic fills the screen: “1968”. It dissolves to “1969”, then vanishes, giving way to the grainy yet vivid visuals that makes up this film, one hundred percent. Little is made of Swedish television’s apparent compulsion to chronicle the Black Power movement, although a mild detour involving a published assault by TV Guide (an American magazine, through and through) on that country’s television practices appears just as head-scratchingly out of character and transparently agendafied now as it had to have been then.
Black Power Mixtape evokes strong, often conflicting emotions of an era often swept under the rug. As it chronologically covers its eight-year expanse, we are simultaneously given the insiders view (the subjects on film), the outsiders view (the Swedish filmmakers of both then and now) and the modern view (the newly recorded voice-over accompaniments, including Erykah Badu, rapper Questlove, and Angela Davis again, whose double duty apparently earned her the film’s one-sheet image). The blend is crucial to the film’s vitality and appeal beyond being anything other than just another compiled historical chronicle. And this is not just another compiled historical chronicle, although its value as such outshines its value as film art, which it boasts no shortage of.
It may not ask all the questions it should, but it’s presented reasonings for the whys and hows of Black Power radicalism, and its early 1970s fizzling out, never ceases to be intriguing. The voice-over subjects do tend to overlook any inner-flaws of the movement, ultimately blaming the influx of drugs in the black community for its downfall. Then, the U.S. government is blamed for smuggling the said drugs into the community, specifically to ignite the downfall. Yes, the U.S. government was no fan of this movement; that is made quite clear. Tragic, fearful, shortsighted and racist reactionary views and tactics forced this cultural confrontation in the first place, and subsequently brought it down. Whether you feel that statement is truthful or not, it is the angle here, and it is worth pondering.
But even in light of all of this, the question lurks: Why now? Why this film, now? The Swedes have obviously been sitting on this footage for quite some time. Perhaps the hold-up was the question of what should be done with, until all these years later, when director Olsson’s unique vision was green lit. Maybe there simply wasn’t the cash or interest in a project detailing the history of a cross-cultural movement that’s ship has sailed. Whatever the case, the fact is that practicality is the considerably less interesting reality of all filmmaking, but the sociological is also key, especially with this project. The face of black culture in America is a massively changing one on the surface, yet practically unmoved in terms of so much street level reality. President Obama is only mentioned once in the modern-day voice over, and essentially dismissed at that. The glaring dichotomy of a black commander-in-chief amid so much remaining, unchanged racial strife is perhaps the modern conundrum of black equality, and a murky one at that. If nothing else, it’s hard not to go there when processing the impact of Black Power Mixtape.
This review of the theatrical release of BLACK POWER MIXTAPE: 1967-1975 originally appeared at Twitch on October 25, 2011.