The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 is one of the most important documentaries of recent years, providing a fleeting but fascinating record of the Black Power movement between its titular years. The film’s concise nature (covering eight years in 94 minutes) will leave many viewers begging out for more, but as an introduction to the figures of this turbulent time BPM hits the mark. The film delivers a chronological tapestry of footage shot by Swedish documentarians across (and possibly beyond) these alloted years, now gathered together by filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson.
1967 locates us two years after the assassination of Malcolm X (by the NoI), and one year after activist Stokely Carmichael had been appointed chairman of the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). Carmichael was a revolutionary in the same vein as Martin Luther King, although they often disagreed in their finer ideological points. King preached and practiced nonviolence, whereas the younger and more fiery Carmichael saw nonviolence as a more temporary solution, willing to react with force if attacked. The first couple of years, which mainly focus on Carmichael, are shot in black and white. If only the race division had such clarity; its colours unified harmoniously.
The film’s biggest problem is simply its brevity. The edit skims past 1971 as if it had never happened, and I suspect that those 12 months, even if they didn’t aid Olsson’s self-made narrative, held important contextual information for the years that followed. There’s an odd tendency toward revisionism too, and a definite decision to not indict any speakers as right or wrong. In the late 1960’s Carmichael fought with the Panthers about whether or not white activists should be allowed to help the black cause, and soon fled into exile. Of course, what happened to him in the years after Black Power is inconsequential to the film’s direct thrust, but it would have been nice to know what happened to him, rather than leave the life of this influential speaker hanging like a loose plot strand.
There’s also a fascinating sequence with Angela Davis, who was wrongly arrested and tried for political purposes; her sentencing to death was supposed to be a statement to the black community, but she fought against it. Davis was not the animal television made her out to be, but rather a thoughtful and intelligent woman, precise in her social and political views. The film pauses to observe her in an interview from her prison cell, and I was amazed by the clarity of her responses. She had every right to resent the system, to have given up on hope, and yet she retained common sense and moral stability. Whether or not you agree with her political views is irrelevant; she’s an inspiration. And yet she’s another subject of BPM who Olsson skips past with little concern for her impact on our present times; his film is hermetically sealed, and never delves beneath the surface. It’s just impossible to cover eight years in 94 minutes, and narration from contemporary speakers (Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Davis herself) just feels like cellotape holding his disjointed structure together.
It’s an endlessly informative watch, but I can’t help thinking about the hours of footage which remain on a cutting room floor somewhere in Sweden. I wonder why Olsson didn’t consider making a TV series from his discovery, but then the answer strikes me as obvious. Cinema is a universal medium and with it his audience increases exponentially; as a film The Black Power Mixtape has the potential to play on screens all over the world, and be discovered by future generations on DVD. It’s a shame that, in order to get his message across, Olsson has had to compound it so ruthlessly, but for me his film remains a success. After all, it has accomplished what all great documentaries must, which is to instill the viewer with a passion for their subject. I didn’t know who Stokely Carmichael or Angela Davis were before watching this film, but now I want to know everything about them. I’ve already scoured YouTube for material and added books to my Amazon shopping cart. I know one thing for sure. This is a mixtape I’ll come back to time and time again…
Director: Göran Hugo Olsson
Runtime: 94 minutes