Race, paranoia explain an era
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Sep 30, 2011
"The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975" seeks to answer a number of questions, including a gnarly technical one. When you discover a cache of 16mm films of such black nationalist leaders as Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver, as well as candid sequences of black neighborhoods in Harlem and Los Angeles through the pivotal late '60s and early '70s, how do you weave them into a timely, coherent whole?
The Swedish director Goran Hugo Olsson, working with material taken by Swedish broadcast journalists and forgotten for years, hit on an inventive solution: Breaking the footage into successive years, he decided to enlist present-day commentators to provide history, context and commentary regarding a movement that began in the wake of assassinations and petered out amid an epidemic of crime and drugs.
To hear many of Olsson's interlocutors tell it, those bookends were no coincidences. Indeed, a pervasive strain of paranoia runs through "The Black Power Mixtape," in which no less than Harry Belafonte suggests that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder was a government conspiracy. When King's agenda "came to dismantling the economic construct," Belafonte says, "he had to go."
The footage that accompanies those foreboding words shows King, his wife, Coretta, and Belafonte himself meeting the king of Sweden, presumably when King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. A few moments later, Abiodun Oyewole, of the seminal group the Last Poets, explains the events that made 1968 so pivotal, erroneously claiming that was the year Medgar Evers and Black Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton were killed along with King and Robert F. Kennedy.
That Olsson allows such rhetorical excess to mar an otherwise convincing argument is one weakness of a film that suffers from a surfeit of credulity. "The Black Power Mixtape" is nonetheless at its strongest when it allows the subjects to speak for themselves, such as when Carmichael engages his mother in a soft-spoken Socratic dialogue on how racism informed her own life. Later, Angela Davis delivers a soaring soliloquy on the hypocrisy of a white culture that abhorred the black nationalist movement's militancy while ignoring years of racist terrorism either committed or condoned by the state.
Some of the choicest moments of "The Black Power Mixtape" don't involve its nominal subjects; one of the film's most lively encounters is with the subversive filmmaker Emile de Antonio, who provides a sharp critique of President Richard Nixon's paranoia as it played out in a 1971 TV Guide article on anti-American bias in Swedish television. Between Nixon's enemies lists and the FBI's Cointelpro activities, that the paranoia was mutual is understandable. You don't have to believe some observers' theories that crack and heroin were introduced to the ghetto to neutralize burgeoning black activism to lament its eventual dissipation.
Then again, "The Black Power Mixtape" may go a long way in energizing young people by awakening them to a history that, although recent by most standards, has literally been beamed from another century.
Contains drug use and adult themes.