This treasure of a film from Göran Hugo Olsson is not just a feat in storytelling and (as has been noted elsewhere) editing, but in memory and history, as well. Based on films made by Swedish television crews between 1967 and 1975 as they attempted to get the real story of the United States and its complex relationships with freedom and race, The Black Power Mixtape moves at an impressive pace and yet still feels comprehensive, even if it doesn’t tell the entire story of the Black Power movement. It’s often as sad as it is uplifting, and the story it tells is as important today as it was then; the legacy of the dreams of an earlier nation perhaps finally coming to fruition.
Archival footage of Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, is mixed with commentary from Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, John Forte, and Robin Kelley––images of the elder generation and their frustrations and the injustices that were visited upon them are played against the words of their spiritual descendents who have benefited from the hard work and dedication of these noble––if, for some, frightening––figures.
With the Civil Rights movement crumbling, leaders such as Carmichael, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan found footing in black America while Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream began to fade as the nation stirred from its slumber. Even King, we learn, had begun to question some elements of his own vision. America was also at war and although Lyndon Johnson wanted to bring peace to warring factions of black and white at home, he was promoting bombing and burning in Asia.
The voices of radicalism grew louder, while some whispered that Farrakhan had been instrumental in deposing Malcolm X, The Black Panthers worked to educate and protect the black community even though the simplest moves, such as free breakfasts for children, were deemed positively dangerous by J. Edgar Hoover. Elsewhere, Davis saw the death penalty looming in her future and TV Guide criticized Swedish television as being hostile toward American ideals. (Some have suggested that the film suffers from a lack of insider perspective but the idea of outsiders telling the story of other outsiders is fascinating and appealing; moreover, the idea that TV Guide was especially vocal on this issue is particularly humorous.)
As incredible as the story seems at times it is, of course, sadly true, and the depth and honesty which the original crew displayed in telling the story is both admirable and––even more than 35 years after the final chapter unfolded––painfully fresh. This is the story, after all, of a group of alternate American heroes, who upheld many of the ideals on which the nation was founded and were punished for it, deemed as outlaws and radicals for the simple desire to obtain equality––not superiority––and freedom.
A variety of bonus features augment the original feature film, including a segment about Joan Little, who murdered a white prison guard, claiming that he had attempted to sexually assault her. She was found not guilty of the 1974 crime and her trial proved a landmark case in American legal history. There’s also a featurette on Carmichael, extended interviews with Davis, Farrakhan and Shirley Chisholm, as well as the film’s trailer.
Each of these is as illuminating as anything in the film and, like the best bonus material, truly enhances the overall experience.
The Black Power Mixtape is and will remain one of the most important films of this decade.