Original release: April 1st, 2001
Running time: 100 minutes
Country of origin: Sweden
Original language: English and Swedish
Writer and director: Goran Olsson
Producer: Annika Rogell
Cast: Angela Davies, Stokely Carmichael, Erykah Badu
I grew up in a very small village in the north west of England. Nine houses small, an hour away from school on the bus small. The population was, and still is, 100% white. People are shocked when I tell them that I wouldn’t have seen anyone who wasn’t white until I watched Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991).
In the film he explains to a child that God paints men different colours and I took that on board fully, but back then could not understand my parents’ grimaces as the neighbours called for their dog, named after the n-word.
After moving away to Toronto, famed for its cultural diversity, and now to London, home to hundreds of languages, it’s easy to forget the level of intolerance that permeates through society, especially when none of it’s directed at me.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 takes a fresh look back at one of the most discriminatory eras in modern history, and one of the most politically active and progressive. From footage lost in an archive for thirty years, it documents the progression of the Civil Rights Movement. Goran Olsson and a band of Swedish journalists spent several years interviewing the public, prominent political figures, including Angela Davies and Stokely Carmichael, and members of the Black Panther Movement. In tandem with the anti-war protests and the hippie movement, the rest of the world, Sweden in particular, was gripped.
The documentary begins with a white American male touting the freedom and equality he feels the United States can offer, so long as you’re willing to work hard and keep your nose clean. It doesn’t matter where you come from, you can achieve what you desire; The American Dream. Olsson then cuts to two black men, fresh back from fighting in Vietnam, living in poverty, struggling to find a job and stay out of trouble with the law.
It’s with this set-up that the tone of the film develops; the ignorance and complicity of white America in the repression and oppression of black America. Themes that are explored during the documentary are predominantly social issues, such as institutional racism, violence, poverty, and education, and the means in which the black communities seek to overcome them.
The Black Power Mixtape takes us through the peaceful protests of Dr Martin Luther King Jnr., to the Black Power movement and the Black Panthers, seeking opinions from orators, academics, and members of the public, and what they make of their way of life through speeches and interviews. Olsson shows us huge demonstrations and rallies, as well as interviewing bookstore owners, bent on helping people on their own street level, to religious leaders attempting to impress order on the chaos.
The difference in the subject matter gives the impression that we’re being shown more of a complete picture, a less biased picture, a picture that was not broadcast on American news channels, or taught in schools such as my own comprehensive in the Cumbrian boonies.
The documentary features original documentary footage with a contemporary narration from some of today’s prominent black figures which provides another perspective on the historic events, and illustrates how, even forty years later, the same issues still need addressing.
One theme that recurred several times is the complicity of the government in the problems that black communities were facing, verging on conspiratorial, perhaps rightly so. J Edgar Hoover declared that the biggest internal threat to America was the Free Breakfast Program provided by the Black Panthers. It seems so bizarre to think that giving a free breakfast to a child in poverty was the most dangerous act for American society to withstand. Did people really believe that pancakes were more dangerous that guns, or juice more than crack cocaine?
This feeling has not faded over time; in Attack the Block (2011), Moses (John Boyega) commented that the British government had sent the aliens to kill the “black boys” because the guns and the drugs weren’t doing it fast enough. Similarly, a concerned doctor commenting on the disproportionately high number of black patients he sees echoes an undertaker in The Interrupters (2011), also unable to understand why he is burying so many young black men.
Despite this, The Black Power Mixtape isn’t overly heavy handed or polemical. The Swedish viewpoint offers a kind of innocence; you get the feeling that the journalists are just very interested, and want to tell the stories they’re uncovering. This is how I felt watching the documentary too. I didn’t want to store up quotes to fire off in debates, I wanted to understand what was happening in the 60s, I wanted to fill the gaps in my knowledge.
The journalists themselves take a backseat in their footage, letting the subjects speak for themselves. They revel in their liberalism, chuckling as American severs international relations in 1972, but do not accuse, instead simply letting the events play out.
The characters that Olsson uses to tell these stories are wealths of information, and tell their stories very well. Angela Davies features prominently, from interviews recorded whilst she was incarcerated for owning a gun, a legal activity, to her present day commentary on the recorded footage.
The Black Power Mixtape tells untold stories from the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s as timely and topical now as it was then; a necessary picture that not only illuminates and reminds us of the past, but brings a spotlight on the present too.
Furthermore, we can use The Black Power Mixtape to address race issues in Europe and the UK too. As we become more multicultural, it’s important not to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to racism and to face issues head on, learning lessons from the past and embracing not only what makes us different, but also what makes us all the same.
The Black Power Mixtape is informative and interesting, and despite being forgotten for 30 years, still very relevant.
Frances likes words and pictures, regardless of media. She finds great comfort and escape in film, and is attracted to anything character-driven with a strong story. Through these stories, she will find meaning in the world. Three movies that Frances thinks are really good for this are You and Me and Everyone We Know (Miranda July), I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (Chan-Wook Park), and How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Popogrebsky).
When Frances grows up, she would like to write words and make pictures and have cool people recognise her on the street and tell her that they really enjoy her work.
She can be found overreacting and over-caffeinated on Twitter @penny_face, a childhood moniker from her grandmother owing to her gloriously round face.