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PARK CITY — If one of the roles of documentaries is to record and preserve history, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 admirably performs its duty. Assembled from extraordinary footage uncovered in the Swedish Television archives by director Göran Hugo Olsson and augmented by contemporary audio interviews, the film presents a powerful reminder of the black power movement, often neglected, misrepresented or forgotten in this country.
This is a film that should be seen by anyone who wants to learn where we’ve come from as a nation. It should enjoy a modest theatrical life and make an even bigger splash for a smart cable outlet.
The Black Power Mixtape is not a static, talking heads record of the past. Olsson and editor Hanna Lejonqvist have melded the material — including speeches, news footage and interviews with Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton, among others — with a running commentary, sometimes by the actual people, about the images onscreen. The effect is a bit like turning on a DVD commentary.
Olsson has organized the film into nine chapters, one for each year, and although the earlier, more explosive years are stronger and some of the later ones lag, there is more than enough revelatory information — footage never seen before outside of Swedish TV — to make anyone with cultural curiosity take notice.
There also is wall-to-wall music, sounds of the times and contemporary contributions from Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and the Roots. Appropriately for the material, the film is put together like a ’70s mixtape, a mélange of visuals and music intended to keep it relevant and interesting for a younger audience.
But in reality, much of the footage speaks for itself. There is a disarming clip from 1967 of Carmichael, the much-feared leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, interviewing his mother on their living room couch. And there’s another candid bit of him sitting around with his co-workers singing “Burn Baby Burn,” one of the anthems of the day.
There is an astonishing interview with Davis in her jail cell in 1972 when she was awaiting trial for murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy (she was acquitted). With her huge Afro bursting out of the frame, she is a direct and forceful presence answering questions.
There is plenty of revolutionary rhetoric here, some of which sounds naïve or dated in retrospect, but the power and urgency of the period come through. Much of the response to racism was true then and is true now, a point the film strives to make. Accompanying the images with present-day remarks helps put the period in context and underscores the positive and lasting contribution of the black power movement to future liberation efforts.
The material is, of course, presented from the perspective of Swedish journalists, who extensively covered the social upheaval in America. In fact, the U.S. government became so upset with Sweden’s representation of events that it cut off diplomatic relations in 1972. In any case, whether these journalists shot any footage critical of the black power movement, such as the rampant sexism, it’s not included here.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Documentary Competition
Production: Story AB, Louverture Films, Sveriges Television
Director: Göran Hugo Olsson
Producer: Annika Rogel
Executive producer: Tobias Janson
Production design: Stefania Malmsten
Music: Corey Smyth, Ahmir Questlove Thompson
Editors: Hanna Lejonqvist, Göran Hugo Olsson
No rating, 96 minutes
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek