The art houses have seen a steady stream of “Baby Boomer history lessons” recently, as if that overbearing, fascinating, endlessly self-absorbed generation were hurrying to put the finishing touches on its official documentary legacy before shuffling off to that big Woodstock in the sky. They come from every angle imaginable — visual arts and feminism (!Women Art Revolution), literary hijinks (Magic Trip), Latin American politics (Nostalgia for the Light), folk music (Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune), rock music (Ladies and Gentlemen … The Rolling Stones), hippie Berkeley-ana (Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie), etc.
But The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is unique. It gathers together a treasure trove of original film footage produced for Swedish television and shot in the US during that tempestuous period of American history, when the Black Power movement, anti-Vietnam-war protests, rebellious students, and a general resistance to authority captured the attention of the world — especially in Sweden, where in the words of filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson, documentary-makers reacted “with a combination of commitment and naïveté” to the upheavals across the Atlantic.
The gift Olsson’s doc gives us is to see ourselves as others see us. The “global perspective” makes even the most over-analyzed events seem fresh. And so when Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis calmly and persuasively explain their discontent with the enigma that is America, we can listen to them with different ears, through that Swedish filter. Assembled by Olsson from archival sources, Mixtape presents the kind of news reports we very seldom saw in the US in those days, particularly on TV. The Swedes’ point of view is intriguing because they don’t have the same preconceptions as Americans. That distance, however, did not protect Sweden’s state-run TV from being labeled as “anti-American” by none other than TV Guide. (Indeed, that Scandinavian country’s skepticism of official American policy was a sore point with Washington — in 1972, when Prime Minister Olof Palme publicly denounced the US bombing of Hanoi, the US State Department angrily froze diplomatic relations with Sweden for more than a year.)
The filmmakers, who include co-producer Danny Glover, added a 2011 commentary track from people inspired by the era, among them singers Erykah Badu and Harry Belafonte, hip-hop artist Talib Kweli, and actor/director Melvin Van Peebles. Amir “Questlove” Thompson’s music soundtrack is superb. But the voices from the past are what really count. This is the first time most of us have had a chance to hear Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and radical filmmaker Emile de Antonio (In the Year of the Pig, Point of Order), who offers a scathing summation of the political situation. We visit Oakland, Harlem, and Hallandale, Florida, and listen to returned Vietnam vets, Malcolm X, attorney William Kunstler, performer Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets, and Lewis Michaux, the proprietor of an African-American bookshop. These are the men and women Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and the networks didn’t want us to know about.
The 16mm footage is beautiful — that grainy, fast film conveys immediacy differently than digital — and filmmaker Olsson’s intentions are beyond reproach. In his “Director’s Notes,” he states: “The people in the film changed the world for the better. Not only for black people in America, or any marginalized group, but for all people.” Catch The Black Power Mixtape before it slips away.