Short and Swede

Black Power Mixtape sums up a struggle from abroad

When recollecting on the volatile quest for racial equality in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the obvious first question that springs to mind is “What did Sweden think?” No? Must be just me then…

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 may seek to answer a question nobody asked, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling. Director Göran Olsson has stitched together vintage footage compiled by Swedish journalists who documented the birth of the Black Power movement with a peculiar fascination and surprising integrity for the time.

Although Olsson may well have cherry-picked his content, opting to only include archival materials that made his home country look objective, Sweden doesn’t exactly sport a reputation for strong political opinions and cultural judgment. Also supporting Olsson’s view is the reaction that TV Guide of all publications took back in the 1960s, essentially blasting the Swedes for not blasting the Black Power movement. Ah, what would America be without the vibrant watchdog journalism of TV Guide?

Black Power Mixtape uses modern voiceover commentary by folks like Talib Kweli, Questlove and Erykah Badu to stitch together the fragmented footage of the past. It is a slightly inelegant strategy by Olsson, functioning almost like a DVD commentary track. What’s more, the contemporary conversations are more or less just “Hey, I remember that” observations that don’t serve the more interesting strategy of examining how pivotal events were played overseas.

Far, far more fascinating are the untainted and shockingly honest interviews with folks like the controversially imprisoned Angela Davis and incendiary Stokely Carmichael. Listening to rare, casual conversations is significantly more gripping than following Olsson’s inelegant summation of the entirety of the black struggle for equality. The gravitational pull of this movement’s significance yanks the director from a more compelling orbit, as Olsson isn’t content to be a mere compiler of clips. Instead, he tries to compose a comprehensive account of a massive and still-ongoing battle against racial iniquity and is slightly betrayed by his ambition.

Although flawed, Black Power Mixtape should by no means be dismissed. It is still a packed powder keg of historical content, frequently exploding with pull-no-punches comments from leaders who will always be remembered in the shadow of the more approachable Martin Luther King Jr. Modern American memory has plenty of room for the largely passive MLK, but Black Power Mixtape is a reminder that the role of more aggressive figures shouldn’t be minimized.

With phenomenal music and compelling footage, Black Power Mixtape may not be as revelatory as it is historically significant. Given the seeming willingness of many Americans to boil the entire equality movement down to just MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, posterity needs documentaries like this to remind us that were it not for voices loud enough to carry across the Atlantic and ring in the ears of Swedes, the cry for equality may well have fallen on deaf ears within our own shores.

Grade = B+

posted at 08:03 pm
on Thursday, October 20th, 2011

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