For three decades, the film canisters sat undisturbed in a cellar beneath the Swedish National Broadcasting Company. Inside was roll after roll of startlingly fresh and candid 16mm footage shot in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, all of it focused on the anti-war and Black Power movements. When filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson discovered the footage, he decided he had a responsibility to shepherd this glimpse of history into the world.
With contemporary audio interviews from leading African American artists, activists, musicians and scholars, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 looks at the people, society, culture, and style that fuelled an era of convulsive change. Utilizing an innovative format that riffs on the popular 1970s mixtape format, Mixtape is a cinematic and musical journey into the black communities of America.
At the end of the ’60s and into the early ’70s, Swedish interest in the U.S. civil rights movement and the U.S. anti-war movement peaked. With a combination of commitment and naiveté, Swedish filmmakers traveled across the Atlantic to explore the Black Power movement, which was being alternately ignored or portrayed in the U.S. media as a violent, nascent terrorist movement.
Despite the obstacles they encountered, both from the conservative white American power establishment and from radicalized movement members themselves, the Swedish filmmakers stayed committed to their investigation, and ultimately formed bonds with key figures in the movement.
The discovered footage offers a penetrating examination — through the lens of Swedish filmmakers — of the Black Power movement from 1967 to 1975, and its worldwide resonance. The result is like an anthropological treatise on an exotic civilization from the point of view of outsiders who approached their subject with no assumptions or biases.
Some of the criticism that the documentary has received has been directed toward its limited coverage of everything that the Black Power movement encapsulated. Joe Williams of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch opined that the “‘Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975’ is a potent time capsule, but without a skeleton of facts and figures, it’s a deficient history lesson”. NPR acknowledged that the film “includes plenty of interest, but it would be stronger if the filmmakers had dug a little deeper into the footage from 1967 to 1972 and skipped the final years altogether”. In its review for the film, The New York Times commented, “As its title suggests, ‘The Black Power Mixtape’ is not a comprehensive history”. However, this outlook on the subject matter of the film is not universal. Diane Archer of Film Comment wrote that The Black Power Mixtape is “a chronological, musically structured collage tracing the arc of the Black Power movement from its inception during the civil rights era through its dissolution as drugs began to erode black communities in the Seventies, created with rarely seen footage culled from the archives of Swedish Television”. Given this commentary, it is apparent that two of the historical events that the film does a particularly fine job of covering is that of the Civil Rights Movement and the effects of the War on Drugs. Olsson frames these themes to be highly relevant to the Black Power movement throughout the documentary.
Civil Rights Movement
The most telling aspect of the film which reveals the strong thematic presence of the Civil Rights Movement from the beginning is its early depiction of Martin Luther King Jr. The film begins its documentation in 1967 which is at the heels of the Civil Rights Movement and rise of the Black Power movement. Featured in the 1967 recap within the film, Stokely Carmichael is seen offering his thoughts on Dr. King in a vintage interview. In reflecting, Carmichael claims that King is “A great man full of compassion. He is full of mercy and he is very patient. He is a man who can accept the uncivilized behavior of white Americans and their unceasing taunts and still have in his heart forgiveness. Unfortunately, I am from a younger generation. I’m not as patient as Dr. King, nor am I as merciful as Dr. King”. In documenting both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, Olsson portrays the tension present as the two movement attempted to coexist despite the differing goals and tactics of the movements.
In documenting the rift between King and Carmichael, the film portrays the tension between the two distinct movements. Carmichael, who popularized the term “Black Power”, used the Black Power movement to promote Black nationalism and Self-determination. King, as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, promoted political cooperation and nonviolence, and the 1967 and 1968 recaps within the film offer a display, explanation, and illustration of why these movements were at odds with each other. In the 1968 section of the film specifically, the film documents the intersections of the two movements when Dr. King is shown speaking out against the Vietnam War and Income inequality, political movements more closely associated with the Black Power movement. The film goes as far to suggest that his assassination was heeded by an ideological movement towards Black Power, a movement he initially condemned.
While the Black Power movement is often characterized as violent, the film challenges conventions in its effort to portray the movement in a more positive light. This is accomplished in the way in which the film humanizes the leaders of the Black Power movement. In his review of the film, A.O. Scott of The New York Times commented on the film’s portrayal of Stokely Carmichael, writing “Carmichael, who later moved to Guinea and took the name Kwame Ture, is remembered for the militancy of his views and his confrontational, often slashingly witty speeches, but the Swedish cameras captured another side of him. In the most touching and arresting scene in ‘Mixtape,’ he interviews his mother, Mable, gently prodding her to talk about the effects of poverty and discrimination on her family”. The film does the same with Black Power leaders and icons including Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver, and thus the Black Power movement is portrayed in a more positive light that is usually reserved for the Civil Rights Movement when analyzing United States History. The film also includes a scene in which the head of TV Guide, an American publication, claims that Swedish coverage of American news stories, specifically the ones sympathetic to the Black Panther Party, are overly negative and “Anti-American”.
War on Drugs
The 1973-1975 recap documented within the film focuses heavily on the detrimental effects of the War on Drugs in African-American communities including its contribution to the heroin epidemic, while also documenting the rise of Nation of Islam. In the Film Juice review of the film, editor Alex Moss claims,
Sadly, once the Black Power Mixtape shifts its emphasis from the Black Panthers to the Nation of Islam and the War on Drugs, the documentary begins to lose both its precision and its power. An interview with Louis Farrakhan is eerie in its fantastical delusions and the documentary’s uncritical attitude towards the idea that the Nation of Islam offers a disciplined lifestyle heralds the arrival of a number of bizarre conspiracy theories including the somewhat inconsistent view that the authorities both turned a blind-eye to the drug trade in Black areas and cracked down on the drug trade in Black areas in a way that damaged the community and undermined the pursuit of civil rights.
Craig Detweiler of Paste offers similar sentiments in his review of the film, suggesting that drugs are portrayed in the documentary as a way that Black communities were placated in the midst of all the anger from the movement. “The ’70s are portrayed as a lost decade, where heroin floods the streets of Harlem. Vietnam veterans return home as addicts. Leaders’ focus gets fuzzy. And the war on drugs becomes a war against a particular community”.
This confusion between the actual detriments of the War on Drugs give way to an ending of the film that several critics have express does not seem quite complete. In the 1973 section of the documentary, one of the film’s more memorable scenes includes a bus full of Swedes who are taking a tour through Harlem and are warned not to visit the neighborhood for “personal studies” because it is “only for black people” adding that it is a “black man’s ghetto where everyone is trying to get high.” Though the scene may call into question the intent of the Swedes depicted on the bus during a trying time for the African-American community, Olsson has acknowledged that the purpose of the scene was to portray “passive racism” on behalf of the Swedish tourists. The film also includes a scene in the 1974 section that depicts a young woman explaining her fight with heroin addiction and its prominence in the community. In documenting these interviews in the film, Olsson vividly displays the detriments of a community ravaged by drugs.