Filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson was working on a documentary about Philly soul music, and while browsing through the Swedish TV archives, he came across some startling pieces of film. One was a 1967 speech the black activist Stokely Carmichael had made in Stockholm, in which he declared that “in order for nonviolence to work, the opponent must have a conscience, and the United States has none.” Another was an intense, historically valuable interview with Angela Davis in her jail cell before her 1972 trial on kidnapping and first-degree murder charges (of which she was eventually acquitted).
“I had heard we had more footage on the Black Panthers than they had in America,” says Olsson. “That might not be true, but when I saw the speech by Stokely and the interview with Angela Davis, I thought this was a film, and it was my duty to put it out to a broader audience.”
The result is “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975,” a mashup history of the Black Power movement as seen through the eyes of Swedish news and documentary filmmakers. Populated with iconic figures — in addition to featuring Davis and Carmichael, the film shows interviews with Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Elaine Brown, William Kunstler and others — Olsson’s film also includes such fascinating footage as Martin Luther King Jr. meeting the king of Sweden, Cleaver and his wife, Kathleen, in exile in Algiers, and a poignant interview Carmichael conducts with his mother.
Ultimately, it’s a CliffsNotes look at a turbulent era in American history, touching on the rise of black militancy to King’s assassination, the campaign waged by the government against the Panthers and the eventual collapse of the movement in the 1970s, a victim of drugs and a harsh economy.
The film is “bits and pieces of different things, shot by different people,” says Kathleen Cleaver, who divorced Eldridge Cleaver in 1987 and is now a law lecturer at Emory University. “It’s like a collage — it gives you different images simultaneously. I think the immediacy of the individuals is all very reminiscent of that time. America had a violent, confrontational, different social texture than any place in Europe. It was exciting, and the Swedes came to find what was exciting.”
They also came with a different political mind-set. “I think the perspective the Swedes brought may be seen as a broader European perspective,” says Robin D.G. Kelley, a UCLA history professor and one of several contemporary observers (including Erykah Badu and Melvin Van Peebles) whose comments are featured on the film’s soundtrack. “There was a kind of global critique of U.S. policy and an uncritical celebration of revolutionary movements. They are coming to the U.S. already sympathetic to Black Power.”
“The Swedish documentary filmmakers and reporters had no problems that these people were leftists,” says Olsson. “They had problems with these people [the Panthers] having guns. . . in opposition to Dr. King’s nonviolence. Many of the people [in the footage] had been in Sweden lecturing and been regarded as important people. Sweden had a connection with the movement, which started when Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.”
And, says Cleaver, there’s a certain Swedish whimsicality about the film, “a ‘wow, look at this,’ and that’s something Americans don’t have.”
Not that the Swedes necessarily got everything that was going on in the United States at that time. The Davis interview and other footage proves their access was pretty incredible — Olsson jokes that “you can’t say no to someone from an Eskimo country knocking on your door” — yet he also admits that “there are so many aspects we can’t understand. We could see the global perspective that connected to the movement. But we couldn’t see the everyday lives of these people in the ’40s and ’50s. And they couldn’t tell how hard the FBI and CIA hit on these people; that was hidden. That’s something lacking in the material.”
Also lacking is any sort of significant historical context, but that’s not really the point of “The Black Power Mixtape.” As it segues from Harlem street scenes to stand-up interviews, from riding along with a New York City police officer to shots of a free kids breakfast sponsored by the Panthers, the film is not just a reminder of a turbulent time but also a way to connect one historical moment with another. “I didn’t do this film to travel to film festivals,” Olsson says. “I tried to package it in such a way it would be attractive to a younger audience.”
“Young people who see this film now have recently become aware of social-justice uprisings in other parts of the world, like the one in Egypt,” Cleaver says. “I hope that they would gain a sense of the ways that the contemporary young people who are rising against injustice are continuing, or refashioning, movements against tyranny that existed before they were born. They draw from one another. No one’s inventing the wheel.”
Beale is a freelance writer.
opens Friday at limited area theaters.