When the fiery activist Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) popularized the term "black power" in a 1966 speech, his words were widely seen as a rejection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his advocacy of nonviolence. Carmichael, then head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), didn't invent or create the term. He was just the latest in a long line of thinkers who considered integration and assimilation dead-end strategies that could never gain blacks real freedom. As SNCC and organizations like The Black Panthers took stances distancing them from such groups as the NAACP, the reaction from mainstream American society grew more hostile and fearful. Likewise, media access and coverage became sporadic and limited.
These realities make Göran Olsson's powerful new documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 a treasure. It's a collection of insights, reflections and commentary culled from interviews gathered by various Swedish journalists for nearly a decade. They came to America determined to discover what was really brewing in the streets. Amazingly, most of this footage sat largely unviewed for more than three decades in a Swedish public TV station's basement.
Lovingly assembled into a fluid documentary (Danny Glover served as a co-producer), the film takes younger viewers back to an era whose militant language and pessimistic attitudes may shock those who've only seen the '60s and '70s through the prism of Eyes on the Prize. Others who remember the time will revel in seeing the period presented without filter or censorship.
As outsiders, these journalists had no compunction finding and interviewing people deemed radicals at best and criminals at worst. They asked occasionally naive but more often perceptive questions about how Ture, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale (among others) really viewed America, what they thought about their fellow white citizens, and whether racial interaction would ever improve.
The most powerful segment features Davis, interviewed from prison, seething when asked about violence. Her lengthy answer, which includes a strong reference to the four little girls blown up in Birmingham, is prolific, poignant and shattering, as well as defiant. But the film also captures uncharacteristic and humorous moments, notably Ture playfully interviewing his mother. Another plus is vivid, candid footage of the Panthers' Oakland headquarters.
The only thing missing from The Black Power Mixtape is incisive analysis. Olsson loaded his guest list with celebrity/entertainer types, some of whom (Questlove, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu) are gripping as they speak — or in Badu's case, sing — over excerpts. But other than Harry Belafonte and scholar Robin Kelley (also the author of the definitive Thelonious Monk biography), few guests attempt to make more than personal connections between the film's events and the current state of black America (or the nation as a whole). While not opting for a set frame of reference minimizes bias charges, it also often results in a lack of context.
The images and language in The Black Power Mixtape will amaze, stun and either delight or anger audiences. But it won't leave anyone wondering about the passion and sincerity of those in the movement, or why they generated such resistance from people in power.
Scene contributor Ron Wynn leads a discussion after the 7 p.m. screening Wednesday, Oct. 12, with Janice Malone, Tennessee Tribune writer and host of Film Festival Radio; and Frank Dobson, director of Vanderbilt's Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center.
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