Tuesday, September 6, 2011

History mystery: Göran Hugo Olsson’s fine THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-1975

Will the real Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis please stand up? I'm only asking because these two people I see from back in the day -- late 60s, early 70s -- look, sound and act little like the firebrands I recall from my own younger days. This "new" look at old icons is one of the great services performed by Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson (shown below) abetted nearly 44 years ago by Swedish journalist Ingrid Dahlberg, who filmed Mr. Carmichael and his mother Mabel in a sweet and pleasant interview in their home in 1967. This interview, which appeared on Swedish television that year -- and now appears in Olsson's new documentary THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-1975 -- gives us a Stokely Carmichael that few Americans who were of adult age at that time will recognize.

This is also true of the scenes we see with Ms Davis, with Eldridge Cleaver and his wife Kathleen Cleaver, and even , if to a lesser extent, with Bobby Seale, founder of the Black Panther Party. Why, exactly, this should be so may be he difficult to deter-mine, but surely it had to do in part with the way these figures were portrayed by the U.S. media at the time: raised-fisted firebrands who were always advocating revolution. And armed revolution, at that. This is also true, no doubt, because the interviewers are not Americans. These Swedes brings a less judgmental viewpoint to bear upon their subjects. They are more inquiring, and they do not fall into the typical media game of serving us warmed over cliches (below) in place of investigation.

Not that Black Power (and its advocates) didn't include its share of angry rhetoric. But how much more there is here, with the Swedes at the helm. From the first, as they interviews a white Floridian coffee shop owner about his views that anyone can succeed here in the U.S.-- without bringing up the rather obvious racial barriers to blacks that existed at this time. They do mention something I had not thought of previously: It was not simply that blacks had to sit in the back of the bus (or give up any remaining seats, even there, to whites). They also had to pay the same fare as whites without getting full compensation for that fare. Leave it to foreigners to see the details Americans miss.

This film is history through an unusual lens. And it does not matter whether, at the time, you were were pro or con Black Power, you were still viewing it via the official American media eye. In the interview with Angela Davis -- this is worth the whole movie! -- Ms Davis, above, makes so tellingly clear why violence is part of the Black heritage in America, and why you cannot have a conversation about race and progress without this violence coming into the discussion.

One of the more interesting sections deals with a honcho from TV Guide (then the nation's most popular magazine: how times have changed!) who visits Sweden and decides, pretty much as a majority of one, that the country is anti-American -- because it only shows the negative aspects of America. You can imagine the same guy declaring that views of Hitler's Germany are anti-German because they concentrate only on the extermination of the Jews.

How Attica fits into this history is pertinent, as well, as are the thoughts and feelings of today's Blacks -- from Talib Kweli and Erykah Badu to Lewis Michaux (the latter has some terrific, pointed stuff to tell us). If the film seems to lose its focus as it proceeds, I think this is because we are getting less from Sweden and more from current American Blacks. This is not bad, mind you -- it brings modernity into the picture -- but it seems just a tad less interesting than some of the historical footage. In any case, it's good to be reminded just what constitutes racism and racists --  then and now -- and leave it to the Swedes to do this with some class and charity. And here we thought they were only good for Ingmar Bergman and  I Am Curious (Yellow)!)

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, from Sundance Selects, opens theatrically this Friday, September 9, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the IFC Center, followed  by a VOD run beginning Wednesday,  September 14.

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