"Pick up the gun and put the pigs on the run," sings a class of young African-Americans to the tune of Wilson Pickett's "Land of 1,000 Dances." The documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 presents a collage of powerful images from America's turbulent racial history, from Black Panther Party school rooms to Attica Prison cells to Harlem's most impoverished streets.
Mixtape's origins lie in raw emotion as well as journalistic detachment. Filmmaker Göran Olsson draws on eight years of Swedish TV news footage of America's racial unrest, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, the trial of activist Angela Davis and the rise of Louis Farrakhan to prominence in the Nation of Islam. Some segments include subtitled narration from the (obviously white) Swedish reporters of the day, but Mixtape also features present-day voice-over commentary from the film's subjects, including Davis, as well as contemporary musicians like Erykah Badu.
Based on generational hindsight as well as the perspective of European outsiders, The Black Power Mixtape encourages viewers to reassess the conventional wisdom about the race conflicts from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. The film's 95-minute running length at times requires a superficial view of a period that demands the full Ken Burns treatment, but Mixtape serves as a compelling overture to further study.
The film begins with the Civil Rights Movement at a transition point, and whether young Black Power leaders like Stokely Carmichael will renew MLK Jr.'s ethos of nonviolence. Exuding serene magnetism and a faint Trinidadian accent, Carmichael gently corrects King's beliefs about the effect of nonviolence on its opponents' conscience: "He only made one fallacious assumption ... The United States has no conscience" in the face of nonviolent protesters. One of the film's most moving moments finds Carmichael talking to his mother about how his family's early poverty could be traced to his father's employment problems, and further traced to racist hiring practices.
While imprisoned during her trial on trumped-up murder charges, Davis gives an electrifying interview about growing up under a cloud of menace in Jim Crow Alabama. Between the South's history of lynching and the 1968 assassinations, for activists to discuss self-defense seems reasonable, although the image of school kids singing about shooting at police officers will make many audiences uncomfortable.
Mixtape's unconventional structure leads to some strange juxtapositions. At one point a Swedish reporter named Bo Holmström, discussing African-American poverty, shows a Harlem apartment where the mother can't afford to give her children milk with their breakfast cereal. The wrenching black-and-white footage gets an unexpected soundtrack as Badu begins singing a childlike song about wanting a better world, which shifts the attention to the present from the archival material. The documentary also stints on context. We see Huey Newton's release from an Oakland, Calif., prison after the charges of involuntary manslaughter against him were dropped, but we learn none of the case's details.
The film revives the sense of political urgency and economic disenfranchisement that motivated the activists of the era, but also makes you wonder about the agendas of the original journalists and the modern-day editors. In 1971, a TV Guide editor even accused the Swedish TV coverage of being anti-American by focusing excessively on negatives like the Vietnam War.
As the film progresses, it focuses less on the leaders of the Black Power movement and more on the rising crime and drug problem in the African-American community. Is this because the reporters were simply chasing the latest story, or had the leadership of the Black Panthers and other activists been marginalized? Most of the interviewees suggest that the white power structure used drugs to undermine the black community, but the film doesn't explore the charges' validity.
Given the vibrant funk and Motown music from 1967 to 1975, and the fact that the film has "Mixtape" in its title, the documentary surprisingly lacks an impassioned soundtrack and unfolds more at the pace of a TV newsmagazine. But perhaps the presence of feel-good songs would undermine the serious intentions of The Black Power Mixtape's powerful history lesson.