The Black Power Mixtape 1967 - 1975, by Göran Hugo Olsson (2011) I think I died a thousand times
Swedish documentary director Göran Hugo Olsson's fourth film is a precious time document, which opens on a beach in sunny Florida in 1967 where a Swedish reporter is in conversation with the owner of a beach diner. Al lives in a country where a man who is not afraid of hard work will succeed and where words and thoughts are free, just a car ride away from the country where John and Roger live. Theirs is a place inhabited by disillusioned war-veterans and impoverished marginalised families. A nation that chews its citizens until their flavour is gone before spitting them out. One that does not give a damn about its people.
Unique in form and position, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 plays out in the style of a bonus feature, brimful with treats for audiences who know their US civil rights movement-ABC. Using archive footage from the late 60s and early 70s combined with a soundtrack to die for and voice-over commentary by academics, activists and artists (among them Harry Belafonte, Sonia Sanchez, Bobby Seale, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli and Questlove), Olsson tells neither the complete story of a superpower decades before the towers crumbled, nor that of a nation divided along ethnic lines.
Black Power Mixtape is the story of a country, which claims it is the freest in the world, as seen through the eyes of idealistic, progressive and slightly naive journalists from a small nation up North.
The footage, mainly sourced from the Swedish broadcaster, consists of news coverage, interviews, press conferences and speeches. It originates from a time when Sweden was almost ethnically homogenous, social democratic and vocal in its criticism of apartheid, colonialism and the Vietnam war. A society, which partly because of government policy and partly because it had managed to stay out of two world wars, had created a welfare system that allowed few of its citizens to fall through its safety net.
Through a sensitive mix of public and intimate moments, Göran Olsson captures both these dimensions of the American civil rights struggle as well as of Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis - the most prominently featured activists in the film. Both are portrayed as complex human beings with childhood memories and wounds. As a daughter and a son, who independently of each other, put two and two together and concluded that neither peaceful negotiation nor waiting for an empathy-challenged opponent to take note of their suffering, would advance the struggle.
Every moment of the film spent with Stokely Carmichael is electrifying, but about ten minutes into the film comes an especially mind-blowing segment that can be blamed on Carmichael's confidence, good looks and intellect, but even more so on the gentle and resolute manner in which he helps his mother - a woman who died a thousand times the first time her son was incarcerated and continued to die a thousand times every time since - to break down the racist structural framework that shaped and determined their lives.
Another extraordinary moment is the first filmed interview with the incarcerated Angela Davis. When legendary Swedish reporter Bo Holmström asks Davis about her view on the armed struggle, the intellectual's eloquent response lays bare the deepest anger and pain originating from an upbringing virtually under siege. One during which her father carried a gun to protect the family, and she experienced the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls first hand. Spike Lee directed 4 Little girls, about.
The choice to use voice-over commentary is a brilliant one, as listening to the reflections of Badu, Kweli, Questlove and the others while history is being recounted on the screen creates a sense of intimacy, almost making it possible to imagine them sitting by our side. The approach also forces the audience to engage with the two-layered narrative at every level without handing over the duty of interpretation to the filmmaker and his cast.
Successfully connecting the past and the present by incorporating reflections by those who were there at the time and of younger activists and artists, Olsson invites the audience to something greater than just a dramatic and incredibly funky trip down memory lane. Forty years after the events, the commentators remind the audience, the struggle for African American emancipation and the related fight against a rampant and devastating capitalist system are far from won.
Through determined activists, antagonists, recovering drug addicts, and children who are trying to make sense of a hostile world, Göran Olsson paints a portrait of a loud and passionate America and Americans scarred by wars waged against foreign powers and its own. And through progressive but round-eyed journalists and Swedish unsuspecting tourists in the hands of an obnoxiously racist Swedish tour guide on a bus ride through "the black man's ghetto", he evokes the idea of a nation and a people oblivious to the complexity of the outside world, and its own assumptions and prejudices. While some things have changed for the better, others - as the commentators remind us - remain the same.