America As It Really Was
The Black Power Mixtape: 1967 – 1975
The Black Power Mixtape: 1967 – 1975 (2011; Producer: Annika Rogell; Director: Göran Olsson) is a collection of largely unseen and unused footage captured by Swedish photojournalists during the Black Power movement. Their aim, as stated in the beginning of the documentary, was “to understand and portray America – through sound and image – as it really is.” Throughout the film, there is a conscious effort to highlight the Swedish journalists’ roles as impartial observers and remind viewers that we are watching this retrospective through the eyes of an outsider. For example, the filmmakers elected to use subtitled Swedish voiceovers (instead of dubbing or employing an English-speaking narrator), and the subjects of the interviews they use in the film are largely willing to speak more freely to an outsider than they would to one of their countrymen.
Black Power intellectual Stokely Carmichael once declared that “nothing is wasted- everything just takes a different form.” The Black Power Mixtape is evidence of that. In contemporary hip-hop culture, the term “mixtape” carries a very specific connotation, and whether intentional or not, it is a nod to Carmichael’s assertion. The term “mixtape” implies impermanence: mixtapes are typically either created by DJs as promotional material, or by artists who want to remind the public of their existence during the gap between studio albums. At the height of his popularity, it was not uncommon for rap artist 50 Cent to release two or three mixtapes between official records. Most of the songs on a mixtape are not finished products, either. Some songs are freestyles, recorded over another artist’s beat, while others are half-finished concepts that artists are unable to round into form but can’t bring themselves to abandon entirely.
Mixtapes are also scattershot- they tend to lack cohesion, even from one song to the next; by and large, the offerings on mixtapes are of a lower quality than one might find on an official, studio-length album. Yet despite the clear disparity between mixtapes and full-length albums, mixtapes are as vital to hip-hop culture as turntables and a microphone, because they serve an important purpose: to whet the public’s appetite to consume more of the contributors’ offerings on their own.
There are 14 journalists credited with providing the footage The Black Power Mixtape, including Bertil Askelöf, Göran Bengtsson, Ingrid Dahlberg, Lars Helander, and Örjan Öberg. What is also remarkable is that, as non-Americans, that they were allowed to approach interviews from a place of genuine, open curiosity. This curiosity is demonstrated in one scene, when a group of Swedish tourists take a bus tour through Harlem. After talking about the devastation wrought by drugs and income inequality in the community, the tour guide informs the group that Harlem is “only for black people,” further remarking “Not even the better – if I may use that wording – the better Colored people visit this area because of the risk of being mugged.”
Although the interviews do provide a great picture of life in America during the Black Power movement, the film comes up short in the storytelling department, unless you consider playing recordings of events as they unfold, back-to-back, and with no concept of where one event ends and the other begins “storytelling.” In a way, this adherence to objectivity is refreshing- there is value in removing some of the emotion and hyperbole that can overshadow a traditional documentary, particularly about such a fraught period in American race relations. The flipside of this detached view, however, is that there is no attempt to try to place events in any sort of broader cultural context; turning points in the group’s history,, such as the trial of Huey P. Newton, Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party, are presented without comment.
In some cases, the filmmakers’ decision not to narrate or editorialize allows the scenes to stand on their own merits. Early in the film, we are shown archived footage of a Swedish journalist interviewing Stokely Carmichael’s mother, while her son sits dutifully by her side. After a few questions, Stokely intervenes and decides to interview his mother himself. I But in endeavoring to cover such a broad range of topics in 91 minutes, a short for a documentary, there are sections that seem to appear out of nowhere and recede just as quickly. I counted at least 15 different topics that could (and should) exist as standalone films: the lives of Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Stokely Carmichael; the impact of drugs on predominantly-black neighborhoods like Harlem; the importance of black bookstores; the list goes on.
From a documentary standpoint, The Black Power Mixtape: 1967 – 1975 has a lot of shortcomings. It is, as I mentioned, an extremely truncated retelling of events, and the filmmakers would have done well to cut some sections in order to give others the attention they deserved. The movie also spends about a quarter of its total runtime discussing the trial of Angela Davis, who never actually belonged to the Black Panther Party. By comparison, Malcolm X was discussed for roughly three minutes, and Eldridge Cleaver’s only contribution was footage of a speech he gave in 1970. And though that may be a matter of subjectivity – after all, who’s to say that Angela Davis isn’t as important to the Black Power movement as Eldridge Cleaver? – it is also notable that two of the progenitors of the Black Power movement received even less screen time than a non-sequitur section about TV Guide and Richard Nixon claiming that the Swedish media was painting America in an unfair light.
Which brings us back to the title.
If we look at this film as a documentary – if we compare it to, say, Ava DuVernay’s 13th – it would not be considered among the best in the genre (or even among the best on this topic.) But despite its categorization, this film is not a documentary; as the title indicates, it is a mixtape. And these are two distinctly different forms.
The Black Power movement was a blend of many unique cultural elements. It did not have a leader; instead, it was driven forward by key figures, each of whom contributed in their own specific way. One film, no matter the length, is simply insufficient to properly document the entirety of the movement, with all its moving pieces and its massive cast of characters. In creating The Black Power Mixtape: 1967 – 1975, it seems the filmmakers recognized the enormity of this movement and the nearly insurmountable task of giving equal time to each of its components. Rather than attempt to limit the scope of the film to what they deemed important (thereby marginalizing and diminishing the importance of everything they left out), the filmmakers instead took a different approach.
Much like a hip-hop mixtape, The Black Power Mixtape isn’t complete or cohesive, but that’s not the point. The filmmakers could not possibly have educated their viewers on each and every important event of the Black Power movement, nor was it their responsibility to do so. Like any good DJ, their role was to give us a broad sampling of the moments and individuals that played a role in the movement’s creation. But ultimately, it’s up to the audience to buy their albums.