Apathy and the black fight for civil rights, Göran Hugo Olsson’s Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 scours the Swedish vaults for an all-American independence.
The Backlash Blues by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Is it right to excuse middle-class white man from the struggle? For women, blacks and gays, the continuing fight for equality and an end to prejudice is still self-evident, even if the flames of liberation have been somewhat neglected over the past thirty years, the fan abandoned in favour of the glitter and sparkle of drugs, sex and shopping. And it’s no thanks to Göran Hugo Olsson, in the nicest possible way, that Black Power Mixtape is so universal. But due rather to the movement’s revolutionary thinkers, who saw beyond colour, beyond black is beautiful, to knowledge, power and a freedom for all.
It’s not a mixtape as you would imagine it, more a chronology of reportages than a kicking soundtrack to the Seventies cassette tape of R.E.S.P.E.C.T, Shaft and Across 110th Street. Black Power Mixtape is a fluid compilation of excerpts from the Swedish vault, oft rumoured to have the best archival footage of the movement inside or outside of the USA, and divided neatly into years from 1967 to 1975, each marked with the year appearing fullscreen in Carousel font. From the birth to the slow comatosis (if not the death) of black power, Göran Hugo Olsson lets his found footage speak for itself, from the beautiful images of Harlem kids playing in a fire hydrant to the gruesome sight of a newborn heroin addict or a captivating prison-side interview with Angela Davis. Mostly contextualised by contemporary black activists, the rise to power is seen both from within and without, from the present of the footage and the present-day audio commentaries, bestowing a very rounded feel on this Black Power Mixtape.
It begins in Hallandale, Florida with an interview with a diner owner, innocently proselytising the myth of America as a land of opportunity, open to all and offering a living to anyone who works hard enough. Cue the Jackson 5 Rockin’ Robin. And in the black ghetto up the road, Roger and John disagree; Vietnam veterans struggling to get out of the gutter and unable to shake the feeling something’s holding them down. Stokely Carmichael adds fuel to the fire with his turn from the passive non-violence of Martin Luther King and bus boycotts into a power movement, afraid the US doesn’t have the conscience to see black suffering and move its heart. The gem here is Stokely’s impromptu interviewing of his mother, deftly drawing out the nub of the black family’s woes – his father, a carpenter, was always the first to be laid off.
The structural racism intrinsic to the US administration however really comes to the fore with Angela Davis. Her incredulous infuriation at being asked if she approves of violence is retorted with a litany of violence committed against blacks – the clashes that took place when a black family moved into a white area, the guns her father had to carry to protect the family, the militia the black community had to form. She herself was removed from her teaching position by Governor Reagan (for being a member of the Communist party) and imprisoned by President Nixon on a trumped up charge of associate to murder, which saw her almost on death row. The US administration too is implicated in the assassination of Martin Luther King, as he turns off the path of peace into a more militant anti-war position. In the words of Talib Kweli, the ruling elite may let you take a shit in the same toilet, but hands off the greenbacks.
The murder of the King of Love is seen as an act of war, and as other champions of the black cause, such as JFK and brother Bobby are cut down, fears of a white conspiracy fester into a violent end to passive, sycophantic obedience. A war begins, and it’s an internal struggle for hearts and minds too, overcoming the fear, greed and unquestioning acceptance of the black position. Later, this independent thinking is epitomised by true black Harlem, the metaphor for black experience in America, and so rough even “better colored people” don’t go there. But the structural racism is violently exposed, the CIA accused of distributing drugs among the black population. There ain’t no hope in dope, but it’s a sure-fire way to keep a good man down.
At its heart though, it’s not violence that propels the revolution, but its goals. And the Black Power agenda is predominantly socialist – to empower communities in the absence of state support. The administration’s fear of free breakfasts, one of the movement’s most enduring policies, recalls Michael Moore’s Sicko and the White House’s vitriolic fear of the Red agenda. So it’s perhaps no surprise that blacks in the Seventies made up 13% of the population but 55% of prisons; a fact that leads to criticisms at the underlying systemic problems that lead to black incarcerations. The riot at Attica proves a flash point for black empowerment, as prisoners’ demands for more humane treatment and access to books ends in a massacre.
In the end it’s all about books. And as Erykah Badu states in voice-over, gain knowledge and write your own story, because if you leave it up to the white man, you’ll be written out. Black is beautiful, but it’s not the whole story. Knowledge is power, not violence. And with the feminist and gay liberation movements’ acquisition of Black Power language, the seeds to wider empowerment have long scattered. The tragedy of Black Power Mixtape is that the movement has barely progressed in 30 years, drugged into paralysis and groomed into obedient, aspirational frenzy. There’s criticism too within the film for its socialist apologism, from the rather unlikely source of Merrill Pannitt of TV Guide who argues the Swedish viewpoint is skewed, America’s sour politics not neutralised by the everyday happiness of shiny consumerism.
While the boundary between Seventies’ opinion and Olsson’s own may at times blur, Black Power Mixtape is an important film. Reevaluating the historic importance and continuing resonance of the Black Power movement, the film is both shocking and beautiful, questioning almost from beyond the grave 21st century political somnambulism, yet disturbing in both its images and interviews. It may be criticised for its one-sided polemics, its archive footage outweighing its modern-day audio commentary, but as a documentary it’s deeply thought-provoking and visually arresting. Surfacing almost 40 years after it was filmed, it’s a belated but invigorating message in a bottle.
Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is released in the UK on 21st October 2011