A remarkable, unexpected, and highly impressionistic document of the Black Power movement in America spanning the years 1967 to 1975, The Black Power Mixtape is by any measure a historical treasure trove of never-before-seen footage. Exactly how revelatory it is will depend in large part on your age and social background, but the period interviews with Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, and Huey Newton give a freshly human face to an American era too often depicted only in iconic terms.
Given the current global air of protestation and street activism, as well as the recent dedication of the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., not to mention the upcoming, almost certain to be racially tinged elections, the timing of this release is more than perfect. And the story behind the film is nearly as interesting as the stories it tells. Briefly: The footage was shot during the titular years by a group of Swedish television reporters and filmmakers. The Swedes were sympathetic to the Black Power cause, so much so that they raised the ire of TV Guide, then the most widely read magazine in America, which labeled Sweden an American detractor on par with the Soviet Union. Set against the incendiary backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Attica riots, J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO strategy, the rise of heroin use in the ghettos, and the rise and fall of Tricky Dick Nixon, the cri de coeur that was the Black Power movement was just one strata of a violently fragmenting American cultural map. (Today's "values-based" culture wars seem positively asinine in comparison.) The Swedes were deeply fascinated by America at the time, both revolted by the blatant incivility and romanced by the theatre of revolution. They traveled to the flash points and filmed them repeatedly, but their reportage was little seen outside of their native land.
The Black Power Mixtape redresses that oversight. Director Olsson edited down hundreds of hours of video footage into a powerful feature film that includes, among many other devastating and inspirational images, a young Carmichael taking over for a Swedish interviewer and quietly, gently quizzing his mother, Mabel, on the painful specifics of his impoverished childhood.
Olsson layers the archival sequences with recollections, tributes, and commentary from contemporary African-American artists and activists, among them the always eloquent Talib Kweli, ?uestlove, Erykah Badu, and others. That provides a current perspective on events now half a century past, but it never dilutes or compromises the original material. It plays very much like it advertises itself: a mixtape – Fear of a Black Planet, then and now.