Being Swedish, director Göran Olsson inherently carries an advantage over most American historians when it comes to documenting domestic cultural phenomena, such as the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Because who’s more objective than a foreign visitor?
Olsson makes this point early on in “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” when Swedish television interviews a white business owner who spells out the American Dream to the foreign journalists in 1967. Subsequently hearing a pair of 20-something black men spell out their hopes for the future (or lack thereof) sets Olsson and his Swedish predecessors up as something of a third party, dispassionately observing an America that’s breaking along lines of privilege and opportunity.
The footage shot by a credited crew of television journalists over 40 years ago is the star of the show, with vivid 16mm stuff from such major players in and influences of the Black Power movement, including Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver. An interview with an imprisoned Davis during her trumped-up 1972 murder trial is the climactic gem here, as convincing a proof of a civil rights problem as any of the traditional TV news shots of police brutality from the time, the water hosings and attack dogs.
It helps to have your Google machine of choice handy when watching, however, as lesser-known names like that of The Last Poets and Abiodun Oyewole pop up with little offering of contextual clues. This “Mixtape” is definitely not for the unstudied or unprepared.
The Roots drummer ?uestlove — who, with a handful of other artists and academics, offers narration — provides a subdued, rhythmic soundtrack befitting of the subject matter, ushering the chronologically arranged film along year-by-year on straightforward drum-kit beats and arrangements that wouldn’t sound out of place on his excellent band’s excellent recent LP, “undun.”
The film’s biggest problem, however, is its ambition. Its subject matter is wide-scattered, jumping from Oakland to Birmingham to New York to Algiers to Harlem trying to cover — in just 96 minutes —reactionary movements and individual figures that each deserve full documentary treatment: Harlem’s 1974 drug despondency, Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, the deaths of the Kennedys, the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program and so on.
But the original Swedish TV crew ought to be praised for shooting such compelling footage that stands out among the best of the time. It captures a really varied mosaic of the black experience in America at the time, ranging everywhere from a charming Martin Luther King Jr. and Harry Belafonte visit with a foreign dignitary to a truly awful, heart-wrenching couple of shots of a disfigured Harlem baby born from the womb of a heroin addict. It’s a shame such moving stuff languished in a vault for so long.