In the late ’60s, a group of radicalized Swedish filmmakers and journalists started traveling to the United States on a regular basis to tell “the real story” of what was going on in America, by following African-American activists like Stokely Carmichael and Huey P. Newton, and reporting on the conditions in urban ghettos. The accentuation of the negative aspects of this country caused controversy, prompting an angry editorial in TV Guide and public condemnation from the U.S. ambassador to Sweden. And the subjects of these Swedes’ cameras didn’t always trust their European interrogators either, seeing their fascination with blacks as a marginalized “other” as racism of a different kind.
Göran Olsson’s documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 touches on the story behind these filmed reports just a little—though not quite enough. Olsson has discovered a treasure-trove of footage of the Black Power movement in the Swedish TV archives, and he strings together some of the most compelling interviews and vignettes, showing how the early promise of civil rights was sidetracked by infighting, black-on-black crime, and drug addiction. Then he adds new voiceover commentary—DVD-style—from people like Angela Davis, who were directly involved in the movement, and Talib Kweli, who grew up surrounded by its iconography and philosophy. But because Olsson is working exclusively with film shot by other people, with their own 40-year-old agenda, he loses some of what decades of reflection, reconsideration, and historical context could’ve brought. (The commentaries are a help, but can only accomplish so much.)
Still, Olsson was right to think that this material was too good to leave in a vault. From the shots of kids at Black Panther breakfasts being taught to sing “pick up a gun and put the pigs on the run” to the vintage interviews of Carmichael and Davis explaining why the option to take up arms is crucial, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 illustrates how the rhetoric of civil rights changed after the breakthroughs of Martin Luther King. With the world’s media finally paying attention, critical thinkers like Carmichael, Davis, and Malcolm X were able to push back against the fretful questions about violence, and redefine the story of blacks in America over the centuries as one defined by violence. If nothing else, this documentary keeps this essential version of the story alive.