In an intriguing concept, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 views the American Black Power movement through the lenses of Swedish (16mm) filmmakers during its heyday while recent commentary from those who were there (including Angela Davis and Harry Belafonte) or wish they could have been (Questlove and Erykah Badu) is heard in voiceover. The documentary actually opens with archival scenes from Miami Beach, where a white restaurant owner touts the freedom and equality in America, followed by clips from poor black Hallandale a half-hour’s drive north. The film was introduced at the Miami International Film Festival, where I saw it, by the head of a Florida-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering black filmmakers who bitched about the whiteout at this year’s Oscars and the lack of recognition awarded to African-American directors. Göran Hugo Olsson, the doc’s white Swedish director, only spoke afterward at the Q&A.
But perhaps the greatest irony of all is that such a tumultuous and thrilling time in American history can be so easily reduced to a staid classroom lecture. Sure, seeing Stokely Carmichael being greeted as a hero in Stockholm and Paris as the Vietnam War rages on is riveting, and watching Belafonte play to the camera in a photo-op with Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, and the King of Sweden is jarring. But like the doc’s era-appropriate soundtrack and ubiquitous images of Che, the newly discovered footage starts to feel repetitive. The problem lies less with this treasure trove that was found in a basement 30 years after it was shot than with the Swedish culture’s tendency toward rational, efficient documentation. Simply put, the doc is full of cool talking heads pontificating rather than taking physical action. Its dry, unemotional spirit doesn’t come close to capturing the passion of the years bookending the critical juncture of 1968.
Nor does most of its never-before-seen footage seem exclusive. Indeed, the Swedish National Broadcast following a Brooklyn family at home merely feels dated when compared with the animated kids at the Black Panther headquarters who sing a song with the refrain “pick up the gun.” A voiceover of Kathleen Cleaver discussing how the Black Panthers (like Muslim madrassas nowadays in Saudi Arabia) were the only entity addressing the impoverished communities’ basic needs isn’t as revelatory as J. Edgar Hoover declaring the Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program to be the most dangerous internal threat to America. But that juicy tidbit is only seen as superimposed words on the screen. When TV Guide calls Holland and Sweden’s coverage of the U.S. anti-American, or we learn that the U.S. broke diplomatic ties to Sweden in 1972 after the prime minister compared the atrocities in Vietnam to those of the Nazis, or a Swedish guide on a tour bus in NYC direly warns against visiting Harlem, we long to see what the heck was going on in Europe at the time—for the director to finally open up his film and truly let us Americans into that Swedish point of view.
But instead of enlightening context, we get to hear about the C.I.A. and the government flooding the black community with drugs in order to control the militancy. In lieu of a broader perspective, we’re met with the overexposed Lewis Farrakhan—looking like the long-lost cousin of Jimmy Swaggart—representing a rising Muslim insurgency that provided the craved for discipline in a chaotic time. Not to mention William Kunstler being interviewed about Attica only serves as a reminder that his daughters’ William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is a far superior doc. Interestingly, only Davis, the most academic of the talking heads (in another ironic twist) can match Kunstler’s unapologetically heartfelt fire as she tries to hold it together in front of the Swedish press while reminiscing about her childhood in Birmingham, about personally knowing those four little girls who became martyrs to a movement. When Melvin Van Peebles says that anyone can die for a cause but that “a sign of maturity is to live day by day for a cause,” we finally see exactly what he means.