A Kind of Curiosity
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, Stokely Carmichael, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis, Danny Glover, Talib Kweli, Bobby Seale, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson
US theatrical: 9 Sep 2011 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 21 Oct 2011 (General release)
“What was it like coming back to America after fighting in Vietnam?” asks an off-screen narrator. A 22-year-old black man nods and begins to talk, his weary expression suggesting this is a question he’s prepared to answer, but one he dreads. “It’s almost the same as when I left, ” he begins. “I say this because when a man goes to fight for his country and then comes back over here and almost have to fight for his life in certain parts of the country, get ridiculed and discriminated, you know, and be less than a man. I don’t think it’s right, you know.”
It’s 1967, and John is speaking to a Swedish TV reporter. The reporter has introduces this interview by speaking first with a white business owner, a man named Al. He runs a coffee shop down the street, on the beach in Hallandale, Florida, just north of Miami. Al’s view of the world is very different from John’s: he sees equal opportunity, freedom of speech, and security. On the beach, the reporter notes, white people lay out in the sun, and children drink soda pops. In the middle of town, where John lives, police cruisers appear threatening. It is, the reporter says, “A whole other side of America.”
These first scenes in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 reveal the documentary’s premise, that the Black Power Movement, building and then suppressed during these eight years, emerged out of needs, the needs to resist injury and endure trauma, and also, to make visible what was going on in America, what remained unknown to people who didn’t have to know. Black Power had to do with pride, politics, and culture, of course, with Richard Wright, James Brown, and the Black Panther Party (BPP). But it also had to do with people trying to survive abuses at once banal and outrageous.
The film—which opens 9 September at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza, and available on demand starting 14 September—goes on to consider the shifting effects and inspirations of the movement, in “nine chapters,” each denoted as a year, more or less. An early chapter focuses on Stokely Carmichael, remembered here by Talib Kweli in an especially poignant context, as the leader of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) moves a crowd in 1967, and then interviews his own mother, asking about her neighborhood (“It’s a little on the rundown side,” she says quietly, “The streets were dirty, garbage pails were thrown all around, not covered up”). Speaking in public, Carmichael (later Kwame Toure) describes his admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but notes, “His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and be moved to change his heart.” But he is also disillusioned, because, for this process to work, “Your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”
Carmichael’s words continue to resonate 40 years later, says Kweli, who was stopped in an airport after 9/11, by “the FBI, the CIA, and the TSA,” because the government knew that he had been listening to Carmichael’s speeches. What these agencies and other authorities who remain fearful of black power miss, says Kweli, is that Carmichael, a “fiery speaker, “was “just a regular dude.” Exhibit A, for Kweli, is the interview with Mabel Carmichael, where the son respects his mother’s strength and dignity.
This crucial combination is visible in other interviewees as well, as well as in commentary offered by Erykah Badu, John Legend, and ?uestlove (“Just because I’m allowed to drink out the same water fountain… doesn’t necessarily equal progress or that the wrongs of 400 years are justified”). Angela Davis appears in archival footage in prison, interviewed by Bo Holmström. “She seems silent and pale when we visit her,” he says, as the camera pushes close to her face, patient and frustrated at the same time.
She tries to educate her interviewer when he asks whether she “supports” armed struggle. “Because of the way this society is organized,” she says, “because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions you have to expect things like that as reactions.” She goes on to describe her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama, the horrors inflicted by Bull Connor and the four little girls she knew, who were killed in the church bombing. “It means,” she says of the initial question, “that the person who is asking me that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”
The film traces how, even in such an environment, the Panthers showed resistance (carrying guns, legally) but also focused on building a community. When, in 1970, J. Edgar Hoover famously declared the BPP’s Free Breakfast Program “the most dangerous internal threat in America,” and subsequently initiated COINTELPRO, the menace posed by the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies grew exponentially. While archival interviews show Bobby Seale and Huey Newton explaining their belief in the concept of Power to the People, news footage shows their arrests or their exits from courtrooms, figured by the media at the time as dangers to the “public.”
These dangers were constructed to seem huge. In an archival interview, Courtney Callender of the Studio Museum in Harlem points out the persistence and resilience of racism, even when intentions are good. “Falling in love with all black things for a short period of time,” he says, can be premised “on a great sense of separateness and a sense of treating black activities as a kind of curiosity, either benign or threatening, one or the other.” The threat appears existential: “When it’s threatening, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to riot,’ or something. And if it’s benign, ‘Let’s let them paint or draw or sing or dance, whatever they want to do, until we, the white community, get tired of them.”
Callender’s observation might be put to this film itself, of course, the outsider’s view of the Movement, at the time and now again. When the film includes a segment on TV Guide‘s inflammatory assertion in 1971 that Swedish and Dutch news reporting was “anti-American,” in part for their coverage of the war in Vietnam, in part for their attention to the Movement, it seems a point made to align the reporters with the objects of their report, equally alarming to the powers that be.
But The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 covers so much ground, from Attica and William Kunstler to John Forte, speaking here about his experience in prison, his reading of Angela Davis, to point out that the Movement was primarily about making wrongs visible. For prisoners, who are disproportionately people of color, he says, “The question comes down to something that’s very fundamental: do prisoners have human rights?”
As the film includes Forte’s commentary, along with footage of Malcolm X, Kathleen Cleaver, and Louis Farrakhan, a girl who’s been a prostitute since she was a child (“I got down with them for about five or six dollars, I found that wasn’t enough and I had to do it constantly, 20 men just to get 30 dollars”), it suggests a range of perspectives. Overdose victims are loaded onto ambulances (“I’m frustrated all the time by what I see,” says a doctor in 1974, wondering “if it will end?”). Kids play in asphalt lots, dads stand on sidewalks, the romance of “Harlem” ongoing, while the veterans in Hallandale seek a way to get by. The mix is volatile and impressive. Earnest or naïve, insistent and wise, all speak to struggle and efforts to find and define community.