“The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975” is at pains to point out in its opening salvo that, in spite of chronicling one of the most divisive and contentious periods of American history, the movie is only relaying footage of the Black Power movement consistent with “how it was perceived by some Swedish filmmakers.” It’s a coy admission and a timid remit that betrays some of the film’s loftier purposes – for a documentary about volatile race relations in the late 1960s and their lasting marks on contemporary US society, it plays things, for the most part, extraordinarily safe. True enough, the unvarnished moments dredged up from footage that had lay dormant in Swedish archives for close to thirty years are essential viewing. And, without question, it’s a real thrill to see frank interviews with Stokely Carmichael and, in particular, Angela Davis (both at the time of her trial regarding murders committed by the Soledad Brothers, and in a recorded interview in 2010), though both could be the subject of their own documentaries individually. But in removing itself so totally from demarcating any contemporary relevance, other than a few tidbits from its more talkative latter-day contributors, the film risks slipping back into the same obscurity it’s just arisen out of – a shame, given its subject matter is indispensable.
We’re privy to a potted history of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, for example, that can do neither figure full justice in the film’s brief ninety-six minute running time, and the filmmakers’ express intent in this regard is unclear. When the footage stops covering the events of the eight years it claims to document, any surrounding questions are simply not addressed, or are otherwise communicated in short biographical detail. Once fleeing America in favor of self-imposed exile, Carmichael totally drops out of the film. It also goes without saying that the complexity of the civil rights movement is streamlined in favor of servicing director Göran Hugo Olsson’s pre-existing footage, hobbling its import as an educational aid. But it’s neither an arid précis of cultural history, designed only to be consumed in high-school classrooms, nor does it seem to be a work that regards its subject matter as the stuff of ‘dead’ history. The real reason for seeing “The Black Power Mixtape,” for it should be seen, is the opportunity to separate the human being — be it one of the members the Black Panthers, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, or even Louis Ferrakhan – from the extant, albeit largely outdated, cultural perceptions of them. In that regard alone it demands to be experienced, though some of the film’s promotional material rather overstates its ‘outsider’s eye’ and capacity for a uniquely Scandinavian critique of institutional racism in, as is widely claimed, the freest country in the world. For the most part it plays an unchallenged refresher course; not overtly romanticized but not nearly probing enough either – tellingly, only a passing mention is made to Barack Obama and the decades before his election in 2008. The net result is something engaging, though never riveting, and the pat chronological editing can at times feel wayward and purposeless.
So, true enough, there are some candid moments drawn from the filmmaker’s trove of footage, and it’s by turns startling and humorous, but the action is decontextualized (beyond a generic spiel, we don’t get any sense of who is filming and why) and often frustratingly apolitical. Any discerning film buff will no doubt get a thrill from seeing documentary-filmmaker Emile de Antonio declaim that TV Guide is a “nothing magazine” in archive footage; after the editor singled out Sweden as being rapaciously ‘anti-American’ in light of the opposition to the war in Vietnam. Elsewhere we see a bus tour through Harlem in which an ignorant foreign tour guide informs his passengers about the “better colored people” who are afraid to venture into the neighborhood, set against Lewis Michaux’s level-headed analysis as proprietor of the famous National Memorial African Bookstore, and Carmichael schooling his own mother on why his father’s unemployability was inextricably connected with his perceived racial identity.
The ‘mixtape’ element is less successful, though the word adequately describes the film – a compilation of familiar hits, just given a new spin and reshuffled. There’s an illustrious list of contributors, including musicians Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu and the poet Abiodun Oyewole, but a notable lack of historians or political theorists attempting to deal with the wider issues (other than the ones placidly reaffirmed by the limited palette of aural contributions). Musically, too, it can be repetitious: as great as the opening bars of The Roots’ “Unwritten” are, they wear a bit after the twentieth play of the multi-purpose lyrics. Some of the years that are less flush with material get left out in the cold, particularly 1972, odd once you consider what a pivotal election year it was. Thankfully, the picture avoids ramming any specific political agenda down the audience’s throat, though some indication of the filmmakers’ broader intent would have been welcome. Likely they see themselves more as cultural shepherds, custodians even, bringing previously unseen footage to light and letting it speak for itself, unadorned and free of heated discussion. It’s a noble ambition, but an easy one.
At one point during the film, John Forté relays an anecdote about giving out one of Davis’ books/pamphlets whilst in jail as an “introductory text” to curious fellow prisoners on their cultural heritage. Forté’s description is true of the film as a whole. It’s a cursory overview that flirts with some of the most important events and issues of the past century, but never really unpacks their legacy enough to inform their influence on political decorum – or, indeed, lack thereof — today. For a film that contains so much talk of the necessity of political violence, it can, at times, seem annoyingly afraid of some of the opinions its subjects espouse. Slight, then, but worth seeking out. [B-]