Judge Daryl Loomis learned more about race from Chuck D than from his school.
"When you love yourself, you don't hurt other people, and you treat others as equals."—Angela Davis
Between 1968 and 1975, Swedish journalists, fascinated with the political climate in the US, brought their cameras across the Atlantic to record the growing black power movement. That footage sat untouched in a vault for some forty years until it was found by director Göran Olsson while working on a separate project. In editing it together, Olsson has created a stunning documentary that provides a unique view into the struggle for civil rights that starkly divided the nation.
Presented vaguely chronologically, by year if not by date, The Black Power Mixtape (1967-1975) takes us through the years after Martin Luther King's assassination as African Americans began, with increasing tenacity, to organize for their rights as free and equal human beings. The ability to eat at a Woolworth's lunch counter without fear of reprisal is something, but the systemic inequality is something entirely different. This film shows just a few of the people who paid the price for taking a stand against that oppression and, through their own words and those of some modern talking heads, we can see their conviction and struggle to create a more level playing field.
The Black Power Mixtape is like little that I've seen. The footage in these ninety minutes represents some of the most important moments of the Twentieth Century and the long, violent, ugly, ongoing battle toward equality for all people. Watching this, it shocked and saddened me how little I knew about the movements and how little I was taught about them in school. I knew many of the names and some of the stories, but on much too superficial a level. This film taught me quite a bit, enough to know how little I know about it. This film is an incredible teaching tool. It shows people who have traditionally been marginalized as angry militants as real people, really struggling to do what is right and just.
Having the opportunity to see Stokely Carmichael, normally shown as a firebrand, gently coaxing out of his mother the real answer to why her husband, a carpenter, was always the first man to be laid off is incredible. Here, we see the organizer in him truly emerge and we see that it sometimes takes a gentle hand and sometimes it takes an angry speech to get what is needed, but most importantly, we see him as a man. It is the same for nearly everybody represented in the film, which includes movement leaders such as Angela Davis, Louis Farrakhan, Bobby Seale, and Huey P. Newton. Carmichael and Davis get the most screen time, with Davis as the most moving figure. As she sits in prison, sick and starving from her hunger strike, chastising her Swedish interviewer for his complete lack of comprehension of the realities of racial violence in this country, the conviction and emotion in her voice and her eyes is hugely affecting.
There is incredible footage here, following the story through the rise of the Black Panthers and toward the end of the Vietnam War as drugs started to take over the large cities and black veterans came back to this country with an addiction to heroin facing little change in people's attitude toward their race. The Black Power Mixtape is a must see film in almost every respect, but it is not perfect. My only big complaint is the modern commentary laid over the footage. Some of it comes from Davis, Robin Kelley, and Bobby Seale, and these bits lend valuable insight. The rest of it, however, comes from modern musicians like Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, and Questlove (who also produced the very strong soundtrack). While some of it is insightful, most is completely unnecessary at best and banal at worst. It is certainly no deal breaker, but it could have been omitted in its entirety with no loss of quality or information.
The Black Power Mixtape comes from MPI on the Sundance label. The disc is good, but limited. The footage looks surprisingly good, given its age and lack of care, but it's still a mixed bag. The black and white, in general, has aged a little better than the color, but all of the prints have a certain amount of damage. Sound is pretty good overall. There isn't a lot for it to do, but all of it is clear with barely any background noise.
The extra features, while slim, really make the disc worth it, however. The five pieces of additional footage are nearly as valuable as the film itself and, together, nearly match the feature's running time. Three are extended pieces from the feature, including more with Stokley Carmichael and the complete interviews with Angela Davis and Louis Farrakhan, with the former serving as even further evidence of the power of Davis. The other two pieces aren't dealt with in the feature at all. The first is a ten minute look at Joan Little, whose trial for the murder of a prison guard while defending herself from sexual assault, and is very good, though a little short. The second, though, is a fantastic look at Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. It runs half an hour as the Swedes follow her on the campaign trail. I'm surprised that none of the footage is included in the feature, but it's here in full and just having that makes the DVD worth it.
It may be imperfect, but The Black Power Mixtape is a one of a kind look at a time and a movement in America that, despite its historical importance, has become something of a footnote; a trivialized, forgotten one, at that. It can be at times very sad and completely infuriating, but without question, The Black Power Mixtape is brilliant, necessary viewing.
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