Most of us have a strong impression of Black Power–dudes in sunglasses and afros holding big guns and talking about violence. That was the impression that a lot of left-leaning white people had at the time too. But Instead of something to disapprove of, it was admirable to a generation sick of Vietnam, colonialism, racism, and liberal promises.
The Black Power Mixtape is a Swedish film consisting of the massive footage shot by Swedish television crews of the American Black Power movement between 1967 and 1975. It does not attempt to tell a complete story of Black Power. The Swedish crews are openly a part of the film. And it tells a compelling story, not so much of the Black Power movement per se, but of both the white leftist fascination with radical anti-colonial movements during the period as well as of changes in urban black life during the period.
The film begins with Stokley Carmichael speaking. I watched it with a friend who is a historian of civil rights and he stated that you can’t understand Carmichael and the rise of the Black Panther Party without an in depth understanding of how he reached that radical point in the brutality of organizing Lowndes County, Alabama. All true, but then the Swedes probably didn’t understand that at the time. They saw a powerful black man speaking truth to power without much clarity of the details on the ground. And thus, the film is as much a fascinating look at the white radical infatuation with movements of color as Black Power itself. In the U.S., white radicals looked at black activists as almost gods, a scenario that reflected a long-standing white liberal obsession with authenticity and the truly heroic struggles of the civil rights movement, as well as causing many younger black activists to look at white allies with a measure of contempt. The European variant of this was somewhat different, with a greater focus on the broader anti-colonial movement. But the Algerian struggle, the PLO, and the Vietnamese especially fascinated Europeans with groups like Baader Meinhof bringing revolution to the home front. With the United States the great enemy of leftists around the world during the Vietnam War, the fascination with the two Americas, one white, privileged and increasingly Republican, the other black, poor, and oppressed is quite clear in the Swedish television productions used for the film.
The real power of the film is in the second half, when it moves away from a sort of greatest hits of Black Power and focuses on the changes in African-American life taking place after 1970. While much of the film consists of short clips, they linger for several minutes on an interview Swedish TV did with Angela Davis while she was in prison, consisting of her getting pretty angry and frustrated having to defend the idea of violence to the reporter. It then goes to Harlem, interviewing everyday people about their life. Drugs are taking over the community, the revolutionary spirit of Black Power is fading, and people are trying to survive in the impoverished and increasingly violent cities. This footage is incredibly powerful–a prostitute talking about how she ended up a heroin addict selling her body, the owner of a black bookstore talking about its importance to the community, a drug dealer being interviewed about why he’s doing it–these stories elucidate why Black Power developed and the immense challenges it faced even before being declared an enemy of the American state. The new response was Louis Farrakhan and the rejuvenated Nation of Islam. The film includes a lengthy clip of a Farrakhan speech, with the historian Robin Kelley explaining how Farrakhan took over NOI and how its self-discipline was a response to the new realities of the declining 70s black city. This is one of the film’s strongest point, in no small part because Kelley provides a bit of context lacking in other parts of the film to help us understand Farrakhan’s importance.
The film provides little context for the footage, rather preferring to play it raw with voice-overs from present-day people discussing its meaning, usually what it means to them in the present, though Angela Davis and Robin Kelleyparticipate. This can be something of a problem. For example, it includes footage of Elaine Brown answering questions about the Black Panthers moving back to their roots, but provides no context of what is actually happening there–the Panthers had retrenched from their national and international focus in the face of police violence and were returning to organizing the Oakland community. It also doesn’t explain who Elaine Brown is and in fact, you really need to bring some basic knowledge of the Black Power movement to the film in order to have a clear sense of what’s going on. We can question the value of the Voice of God narrator, a style with many problems, but I couldn’t really show this film in a class on civil rights until the very end, when the students would have a semester to understand what is going on.
Overall, this is not a film without problems, particularly the lack of context and the requirement that the viewer bring some basic knowledge to the table. But the footage is incredible. It’s a thought-provoking film that will cause you to reconsider some of what you believe about Black Power and that will break your heart at the end as you see black urban life slide into the drug epidemic of the 70s and 80s.