TRUE/FALSE FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | April 10, 2011
Director: Göran Hugo Olsson
You never know what you might discover in those dusty old boxes that have been sitting in the basement for decades. In the case of Swedish documentary director Göran Hugo Olsson, he unearthed — technically, undusted — a treasure trove of pristine, never-before-seen, 30-year old 16mm reels of film in the basement of the Swedish Television network. The footage was originally shot by Swedish Television journalists who studiously documented the Black Power movement in the United States during the 1960s and ’70s.
Why were the Swedes so damn interested in the Black Power movement in the U.S.? (Rumor has it that the Swedes amassed more footage of the Black Power movement than the entire U.S.) Well, as far as I can surmise from the footage, the Swedes were probably attempting to prove that they shared a Utopian goal of “equal rights for all” with the Black Power movement. (Swedes were also notably obsessed with the anti-war movement in the U.S. as well, a movement with which Black Power was synonymous.)
While the mainstream media in the U.S. tried their best to ignore the Black Power movement altogether — or they painted Black Power as a form of violent terrorism — Swedish Television practically glorified the likes of Stokely Carmichael, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Emile de Antonio and Angela Davis (all of whom appear in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975). This is more than likely why the TV Guide considered Swedish Television’s coverage of the U.S. to be anti-American. (The U.S. broke diplomatic ties with Sweden in 1972 after the Swedish prime minister compared the atrocities in Vietnam to those of the Nazis.) Besides, white America was too busy pretending that everything was alright to pay attention to a bunch of [Socialist] Scandinavians — Olsson is quick to place Mixtape into its proper context, beginning the documentary with archival footage of a white Miami Beach restaurateur obliviously touting the incomparable freedom and equality in the U.S., a statement that is promptly negated by clips of Hallandale, a poor black shanty town a short drive north of Miami Beach.
Olsson’s Mixtape views the Black Power movement via the kino eye of Swedish filmmakers — outsiders philosophizing about the state de la démocratie en Amérique. One would assume that these white as driven snow foreign journalists probably had a difficult time immersing themselves into the black as midnight as a moonless night sub-culture, but the resulting footage reveals a deeply entrenched kinship and trust between the filmmakers and their subjects. The outsider perspective lends a very unique advantage to the footage; though we can all but prove the journalists’ allegiance to the Black Power movement, the footage is still significantly less culturally biased than film shot by a member of the Black Power movement.
Mixtape features voice overs by a menagerie of prominent black personalities of the 21st century: Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte, ?uestlove, Erykah Badu, Sonia Sanchez, Talib Kweli, Robin Kelley, Kathleen Cleaver, Abiodun Oyewole and John Forte. For the most part, the narrations seem to be unscripted, as if the participants are reacting naturally to the Swedish Television footage (you know, like a DVD commentary).
The titular mixtape refers simultaneously to both sound and image. ?uestlove provides an impeccable compilation of era-appropriate tunes, while Olsson reveals a priceless compilation of 16mm footage: Stokely Carmichael is practically worshiped as an iconic hero in Europe; J. Edgar Hoover declares the Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program to be the most dangerous internal threat to America; iconic images of Che Guevara purposefully sneak into the frame from time to time; school children studying at a Black Panther headquarters sing a song with the refrain “pick up the gun”; a Swedish tour guide warns his all-white audience not to visit Harlem; Lewis Farrakhan emerges as a rising Muslim star, providing strict discipline in a very chaotic time; an imprisoned Angela Davis provides a comprehensive refutation of the Black Power movement’s supposed embrace of violence.
Mixtape provides us with a glorious portrait of the socially and economically conscious side of the Black Panthers as they try their best to address their local [impoverished] communities’ basic needs while always keeping larger national issues (the Vietnam war, record levels of incarceration, extreme poverty, drug addiction, lack of government accountability, failing public schools and the pervasiveness of structural racism) in their sights. The Black Power movement did fuel societal change even if their influence on other liberation struggles and political movements has been erased from U.S. history textbooks; thankfully, we now have access to this rare Swedish footage to remind us of the significance of Black Power, as Olsson contextualizes the movement and highlights its successes and failures.
Fight the power!!!