All Power to the People
When rising generations understand little about the not-distant past and coddled athletes and entertainers little appreciate the sacrifices of pioneers who blazed paths for them, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is a necessary view. Subjective and at once bolstered and lessened through foreign eyes’ distance and naďveté, this multi-festival entry, including a New York premičre at the Museum of Modern Art-Lincoln Center Film Society’s New Directors/New Films, is a good documentary though not the outstanding one it could have been.
Its 1970s-style “Mixtape, not a remix” is not so unique as advertised. The documentary alternates news material not seen outside Scandinavia in three decades and in some cases never, with present-day commentary by mostly African-American leaders and artists, overlaid with a period and a current soundtrack score. What is different involves the archive material being largely from the vaults of Swedish television and also intercalating its film Harlem: Voices, Faces, which our upset ambassador was given requested airtime to “correct.” Commentaries from the crew are subtitled in English, and interviews abroad and here are conducted in English, including a 1967 example where Trinidad-born Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) questions his own immigrant mother Mabel and another, five years later, with Angela Davis in California State Prison.
Writer, director and coeditor (World Documentary Editing Prize, Sundance 2011) Göran Hugo Olsson laments having to leave out “wonderful stuff that didn’t fit into the storyline, [such as] some awesome footage about the Shirley Chisholm campaign.” Still, much is included in this self-styled “documentary in 9 chapters,” or years, through fresh foreign sensibilities that Richard Nixon and TV Guide label anti-American.
Imaging but not going overboard on black poverty, urban and rural blight, crime, drugs, Vietnam, assassinations, police brutality, riots, prisons and demonstrations, BPM zeroes in, rather, on the personalities shaping that particular movement, in their own words and in their and others’ assessments then and now.
One is struck by the cogent, soft-spoken, reasoned explanations of most of the speakers here, whether Party members or sympathizers, firebrands, exiles, community workers. A Harlem bookshop owner is charming with Muhammad Ali rhyme, while Louis Farrakhan defends sensible aspects of Nation of Islam standards along with its theology-mythology; under Algerian protection, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver are earnest, and BPP rank and filers talk proudly of self-help, education programs, clinics, free children’s breakfasts.
The contrast is apparent between the above ordinary but persuasive speech and the pulpit cadences of Martin Luther King. Barely seen or heard here, Dr. King nevertheless is a presence. Opening minutes capture Young Turks rejecting non-violence, one later asserting that SCLC’s broadening its targets to war and poverty led to the Establishment-engineered murder in Memphis: eat at lunch counters and ride in the front of buses, but don’t mess with military-industrial bread and butter.
Claiming for Sweden a special interest in the Civil Rights Movement, the film is less weighted with America’s national biases but not free of Sweden’s. “Offer[ed] in the spirit of empowerment,” in simplifying it necessarily skimps on some essential aspects. Federal and state government harassment of radical activity is clear, though it is odd that the film makes nothing of the legal never-indicted 1969 murders of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Neither, to be balanced, is the delayed but important vindication of the judicial in the three Huey P. Newton mistrials, the overturning of Bobby Seale’s Chicago Eight conviction and his subsequent acquittal of murder, and the New York City acquittal of thirteen other Panthers.
Not out-of-the-ordinary in nonfiction technique but stirring in footage of long-unseen faces iconic or villainous, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 does the service of bringing its subjects to the attention of younger generations unfamiliar with them. While the inclusiveness and incisiveness of TV’s fourteen-hour Eyes on the Prize cannot be expected in this hundred minutes and its niche, neither is BPM in the same class as Lee Lew-Lee’s two-hour All Power to the People.
(Released by Sundance Selects; not rated by MPAA.)