Director: Göran Olsson
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As the hubby and I made our way to International House at the University of Chicago to attend a free showing of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, he said to me, “But you know, Angela Davis did shoot a man.” “Did he die?” I asked. “I don’t think so,” the hubby answered. This conversation alone justifies the existence of this film. Not only did we learn that Angela Davis never shot anyone—her legally owned and registered gun was used in an attack without her knowledge—but that she did 18 months in jail awaiting a trial that could have sent her to the gas chamber; she was subsequently acquitted.
Misinformation about the civil rights/black power movements in the United States is rampant among both opponents and supporters. That’s why Mixtape is an unusual and valuable look from an outside source—Sweden. During the years mentioned in the title, Swedish television journalists covered aspects of the movements both in the United States and abroad, providing a more in-depth and generally sympathetic look at the Black Panther Party and its allies than could ever have been found within the States, then or now. Indeed, the continued neglect of this important time in American and African-American history—the film opened on exactly two screens on September 11, 2011 and has not played on more than 13 screens during any week since—shows how frightened people still are of black power, even as a black-identifying president occupies the White House.
Rediscovery of this footage gave the film’s producers (including actor/director/political activist Danny Glover) and director Göran Olsson the very bright idea to offer today’s audiences a window on the past, as well as give contemporary African Americans a chance to reflect on the effect of this legacy on their lives and careers. During the panel discussion that followed the film, a number of Black Panthers reaffirmed the continued existence and activity of the Panthers, and young audience members showed their eagerness to commit to continuous transformation of society.
The film begins with a look at impoverished African Americans and segues into extensive footage of Stokely Carmichael, a handsome, educated, articulate spokesperson for black power. Carmichael is shown meeting with foreign dignitaries, including the king of Sweden, but his most affecting moment is in his mother’s apartment in Chicago. He grabs the microphone from the Swedes and interviews her about the cramped living conditions in which the Carmichael family struggled, teasing out with question after question the reasons for their poverty. Finally, his mother asserts that her husband was always the first laid off because he was “colored.” Carmichael was a separatist who broke with the Black Panthers over their decision to collaborate with white activists. In various interviews, he asserts his respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while disagreeing with his belief in nonviolence.
In voiceover, hip-hop artist and poet Talib Kweli ruminates on the legacy of Stokely Carmichael. While confessing that he was not that aware of Carmichael, when reviewing the authors Carmichael read, Kweli sees they are more than brothers of the skin, learning as they did at the knee of many of the same people, including Richard Wright and Malcolm X. The extension of the black power movement through the artistry of hip-hop and rap artists is more inferred than stated in this film, but it is clear that the legacy has been carried forward and made relevant to young African Americans in a new way.
Panelist Dr. Charles Payne pointed out that the film takes a top-down view of the black power movement, focusing on such leaders as Carmichael, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale, and making some unfortunate factual errors, such as giving the incorrect dates for the murders of Medgar Evers (1963, not 1967) and Fred Hampton and Mark Clark (1969, not 1968). All of the panelists complained that the film gives little time to the “survival programs”—the free breakfast program, self-defense classes, free medical clinics and first-aid training, political and economic education, and other services—that made the Panthers a bulwark in the African-American community. Following up with contemporary commentary from the likes of Melvin Van Peebles, Erykah Badu, and Harry Belafonte continues this high-profile approach, though their faces are never seen and their comments are worth listening to.
Further, in the sensationalist style we’ve come to expect of modern journalism, the film shows a Panthers’ class in which the youngsters chant “take up the gun” repeatedly. Further questioning of Angela Davis in her prison cell by the journalists results in a takedown of epic proportions. Davis, angered by the continued focus on violence, recalls in harrowing detail the day the four little girls she knew during her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama were blown to bits by a racist bombing, an incident made most famous by Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls. The horror that invades her eyes is memorable and fully explicates the need for the armed neighborhood watch that resulted to prevent further violence against African Americans. Indeed, a misunderstanding of the notion of nonviolence—not passivity in the face of attack, but rather a freeing of oneself from a desire to commit violence to further a cause—was elucidated by the post-screening panel. One of the panelists, Black Panther member Stanley McKinney, teaches martial arts to this day in accordance with the party’s 10-point program.
The film digresses rather humorously to a TV Guide article of the period that branded Sweden as the most anti-American country in the world because it shot and aired the footage we see in Mixtape, as well as of demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. Again, the bromide that the bad is not balanced with the good is trotted out to quell criticism by Swedes, but one criticism of their coverage does have some validity. It is rather hard to make sense of anything happening in the United States, then or now, without a thorough understanding of the country, and of the various factions of the civil rights/black power movements. While the footage provides a different perspective on well-known figures, it remains near the surface.
J. Edgar Hoover, founder of the dirty tricks infiltration of perceived subversive organizations known as Cointelpro (Covert Intelligence Programs) said, “The Breakfast for Children Program represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.” The film repeats assertions that drugs were introduced into the African-American community as a way to destroy the momentum of the black power movement. Many Vietnam veterans, both black and white, came back to the States addicted to heroin; whether it was by design is beyond my powers to discern. That drugs created problems for community organizers is a given, and reinvigorating an effective movement was on the minds of everyone attending the screening. As the panelists said, there is no way to achieve unity in a country as diverse as the United States, and that it is better for the various groups to work toward converging goals to form a powerful coalition for change.
Despite its shortcomings, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 gives contemporary audiences back a piece of their history, not only setting some records straight but also offering the passion of past activists as inspiration to a new generation. A Harlem bookstore owner in the film mentions how some young people came into his store one day talking about black power. He told them, “Black is beautiful, but knowledge is power.” Applause erupted in the audience at that line.