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Movie review: 'The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975'

Forgotten interview footage of some of the biggest names in the movement lend Goran Hugo Olsson's documentary its electric intensity.

September 23, 2011|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • The Rev. Martin Luther King, left, and Harry Belafonte in an interview featured in the documentary "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975."
The Rev. Martin Luther King, left, and Harry Belafonte in an interview featured… (Sundance Selects, Sundance…)

Stokely Carmichael. Angela Davis. Huey P. Newton. Bobby Seale. Names to conjure with in recent American history, when the Black Power political movement was a force in the land, but names that no longer mean what they did back in the day. A Swedish filmmaker named Goran Hugo Olsson aims to change that with a singular documentary called "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975."

It was Olsson who discovered reels of 16-millimeter interview footage of these significant individuals and others taken by Swedish television journalists, footage that had sat abandoned and forgotten in the network's archives. To see these clips is to think of the classic Weavers political song "Wasn't That a Time." A dramatic time for sure.

Stitched together with contemporary audio commentary by artists like Erykah Badu and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, the images in "Black Power" are electric. They have the immediacy of history being lived in front of the camera and the charm of allowing us to glimpse the people who made that history before they turned into icons.

The Swedish journalists who shot this footage got it partly because they were on the scene when the Black Power advocates came to Europe to speak and partly because they were curious enough to come to America to seek them out for further comment and conversation.

Perhaps the most compelling footage involves the young and passionate Carmichael, the firebrand leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Carmichael is first seen speaking in Stockholm, in effect giving a tutorial on the differences between himself and the Rev. Martin Luther King in relation to nonviolence.

"Dr. King's assumption," Carmichael explains, "is that your opponents will be moved by your suffering. For that to happen, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none."

Even more impressive is an interview situation in the apartment of Carmichael's mother, Mabel, who is so initially nervous about speaking in front of the camera that Carmichael himself patiently walks her though stories about his father's experiences with institutional racism.

Starting in 1969, the Swedish interviewers concentrate on stories about the Black Panthers. We see footage and interviews with Newton and Seale, shots of Kathleen Cleaver in the Panther headquarters-in-exile in Algeria, and, most unforgettably, scenes of young children chanting in Panther schools in Oakland. "Come on, people, join in the struggle," they say. "Pick up a gun, put the pig on the run."

Aside from the Carmichael footage, "Black Power's" most memorable interview is with Davis, the first interview she gave from her jail cell in Northern California while awaiting trial on charges that she provided the weapons in a courthouse shooting that left four people dead, including a judge. (She was acquitted.) Wearing a bright red sweater but looking worn and tired, she is both articulate and furious.

"When someone asks me about violence, I find it incredible," she says. "A person asking that can have no idea about what black people have gone through in this country."

Once the Panthers leave the scene, the Swedish television reports become more generic but still involving, like a piece on Lewis Michaux and his National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem and an affecting interview with a young prostitute.

"Black Power Mixtape's" contemporary audio, though it tries hard to involve us, can't hold a candle to this kind of footage. But if having these current voices on board helped get the luminous glimpses of the past back on the screen, we owe them a vote of thanks.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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