Friday, November 11, 2011
LITTLE ROCK Looking back from the 21st century, it seems rather difficult to believe that in the late 1960s and early 1970s a good many people around the world really believed that the United States was ripping itself apart. Revolution really was in the air in those days - the period between the assassination of President Kennedy and the resignation of Richard Nixon (or the fall of Saigon) was a crazy, scary time for those who survived it.
And while it purports to be something much more modest, the ironically awkwardly titled Swedish documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 provides a peephole back into that era, as it gives us our country as perceived by a number of earnest Swedish television journalists, some of whom seemed fairly certain that the American center could not hold. Watching it, we see our parents and ourselves refracted through a cool if subjective lens, and it’s easy to wonder exactly how we made it.
Swedish TV developed something of a fetish for America’s black power movement; its reporters crisscrossed America, visiting the still-segregated South; Black Panther headquarters in Oakland, Calif.; Harlem; and Angela Davis in prison. They interviewed unemployed black Vietnam veterans; Eldridge Cleaver on the eve of his reluctant self-exile; Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael and others.
In the process, they created a kind of alternate history of the period, depicting the fading of the old-school civil rights movement; its succession by a more radical black power; and the ultimate splintering of these groups and subsequent dissipation of their political power.
Director Goran Olsson stitches this recently rediscovered archival footage together in essentially chronological order, interspersed with contemporary commentary from musicians such as Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson from the Roots and the Last Poets’ Abiodun Oyewole.
There are any number of startling moments in the documentary, but one of the most clarifying and electric comes fairly early on in the proceedings, with a 26-year old Carmichael speaking in Stockholm, delineating the differences between his approach to seeking social justice and Martin Luther King Jr.’s methods.
“Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States,” Carmichael explains. “His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”
Carmichael was considered dangerous in the day, and the history of the Black Panthers is bloody and stained with criminality. It is shocking to see how the Swedes failed to question the Panthers’ militaristic training of children (a classroom full of kids chants “pick up the gun and put the pigs on the run” for the nonjudgmental cameras) or their macho posturing.
But given the conditions black Americans were faced with, Carmichael emerges as a charismatic and utterly reasonable figure whose rhetoric seems nearly restrained. (When a French journalist asks him if he’s afraid of going to prison, Carmichael calmly replies, “I was born in jail.”) One of the film’s most affecting moments occurs when Carmichael takes the microphone from a journalist’s hand and gently guides his own mother through a revealing interview.
Predictably, the film is strongest in its first hour, when the filmmakers are able to focus more on the genuine political struggle that, by 1974 or 1975, had degenerated into a more amorphous, less photogenic, socio-economic contest.
And a niggling point: There’s something I don’t like about the title - maybe it’s that it suggests another, kookier film than the one we’re presented. It made me expect a movie that was as much about the mis-perceptions of certain naive Northern Europeans - about the radically chic ice people glamoured or maumaued into complicity by the Black Panthers. In reality, it’s a less intellectually twisty work than that - it is basically a work of more or less straight journalism, that, as a title card tells us, “does not presume to tell the whole story of the black power movement, but to show how it was perceived by some Swedish filmmakers.”
And we are, of course, free to receive it any way we wish. And it’s not inconceivable that some might feel nostalgia for the revolution that never quite came. One imagines that in the ranks of the contemporary occupiers there are at least a few old grayheads happy for the chance to march again - and a few whippersnappers determined not to miss their generation’s push back against The Man.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 87 Cast: Documentary Director: Goran Hugo Olsson Rating: Not rated Running time: 100 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 11/11/2011