Arts & Culture: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Civil rights activist Angela Davis, on hunger strike in prison in 1971

I was expecting big things from The Black Power Mixtape. The limited release and the fact that on my first attempt to see it, it had been sold-out, made it feel all the more like I was going to delve into a lost archive of some of my own heroes and heroines, with a soundtrack to match. Not that it didn’t deliver on a certain level (minimalist, well-crafted score, a seldom-seen foreign perspective on US social movement and policy of the ’60s and ’70s), but if you expect an in-depth analysis of the ‘Lost Civil Rights Tapes’, you’ll feel a bit short changed.

The Black Power Mixtape is 9 shorts by Swedish director Göran Olsson, comprised of previously unseen footage shot by Swedish journalists, documenting the Black Power Movement in the US.

The footage reveals key players in the Black Power and Civil Rights movements as everyday people, simply applying common sense to fight for their own and others’ human rights. Filmed by Swedish journalists, delivering his speeches, Stokely Carmichael’s wit is biting and crisp. But in recently unseen footage, he is human and playful, literally stoking a fire while singing, adding the line, ‘this one’s for the FBI’. Interviewing his mother, as gentle-spoken as her son, teasing out the reason her husband is ‘always first to be laid off’; because ‘he’s a coloured man’. Carmichael is at ease, among friends, which says a great deal about the journalists that filmed him.

Angela Davis is interviewed by Swedish television in prison while on hunger strike over her false imprisonment for the apparent ownership of a pistol that shot a man. She is pallid and almost bent over with the weight of her huge natural afro and the heavy burden of protest that she carries on her shoulders for millions of black Americans. An image of quiet, exhausted dignity, Davis is repulsed by the question put to her about the place of violence in black protest. She has an entirely different relationship with her interviewer to Carmichael, who, blithely, swaps places with the Swedes to interview his mother. Angela’s interviewer, a white male Swede is a threat, with no understanding of the black struggle or what constitutes her fight for freedom. It’s a laughable question and this is no joke.

The curators of the footage expect you to know many of the faces and voices of the Black Power and the Civil Rights movements. Even for me, who can go through periods of swotting up on the subject, I was occasionally disappointed that I was in a basement screening with no internet to ‘remind myself’ of a certain central theme or figure. Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu and John Forté were intelligent choices for commentators, but this is the Civil Rights movement; it’s not their specialist subjects. Professor Robin Kelly, Angela Davis herself and those who were there or could speak for those that were, are either overshadowed or overlooked.

The Black Power Mixtape is unapologetically raw in edit yet stylishly crafted. It starts on the relationship of the Swedish media with the Black Power Movement and its compulsion to document it, but never finishes. While it can feel snortingly anti-establishment and everything you’d expect from a leftfield film on Black Power, the film is just that, a mixtape. Lost footage that would otherwise be languishing in the basement of a Swedish TV station gets a well-deserved airing.

 

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