A remarkable, unexpected and highly impressionistic document of the Black Power movement in America, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is a historical treasure trove of never-before-seen footage. The period interviews with Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton give a freshly human face to an American era too often depicted only in iconic terms.
The timing of this release is perfect, given the current global air of protest and street activism, as well as the recent dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. And the story behind the film is nearly as interesting as the stories it tells.
The footage was shot during the titular years by a group of Swedish television reporters and filmmakers. Swedes were sympathetic to the Black Power cause, so much so that they raised the ire of TV Guide, then the most widely read magazine in America. It labeled Sweden an American detractor on par with the Soviet Union.
Set against the incendiary backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Attica riots, J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO strategy, the rise of heroin use in the ghettos, and the rise and fall of Tricky Dick Nixon, the Black Power movement was just one part of a violently fragmenting American cultural map. Today's "values-based" culture wars seem positively asinine in comparison.
The Swedes were fascinated by America at the time, both revolted by the blatant incivility and attracted to the theater of revolution. They traveled to the flashpoints and filmed them repeatedly, but their reportage was little seen outside of their native land.
The Black Power Mixtape redresses that oversight. Director Göran Hugo Olsson edited down hundreds of hours of video footage into a powerful feature film that includes, among many other devastating and inspirational images, a young Carmichael taking over for a Swedish interviewer and gently quizzing his mother, Mabel, on the painful specifics of his impoverished childhood.
Olsson layers the archival sequences with recollections, tributes and commentary from contemporary African American artists and activists, among them the always eloquent Talib Kweli, ?uestlove, Erykah Badu and others. That provides a current perspective on events now half a century past, but it never compromises the original material. The film plays very much as it advertises itself: like a mixtape.