Revolution, Made in the U.S.A., Televised Abroad
Published on September 8th, 2011 | by Ryan Wells1
Running Time: 100 Minutes. Not rated.
Languages: English and Swedish (with subtitles)
The attitudes are variegated about foreigners lending commentary to the American experience. Many Americans feel it’s nobody’s business except our own on what happens on our shores. Others feel it fair game; and this often gives us some of the finest chronicling of our country’s history and her travails.
Case in point is Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835/1840 study of the United States (“Democracy in America”) that, based on the current social and political climate, slave ownership and race relations would eventually cause a civil divide in the country, thus presenting the prospect for war. (This, of course, ended up germinating some two decades later.)
Though not as revolutionary or impactful as the Tocqueville chronicles, the found footage that works as the basis of Swedish filmmaker Göran Olsson’s engrossing “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975,” essentially captures highly controversial and significant moments in our nation’s twentieth century history, particularly as it relates to the rise in the Black Power movement (Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael) in the mid-Sixties to a newer wave that began peaking in the Seventies (Louis Farrakhan, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale).
The audio and visual footage was shot by several Swedish reporters who were covering Black America during this significant period; the footage, it appears, is about headlines, those events that were breaking and had a geopolitical impact on the US and abroad: the Vietnam war, public school education, drug addiction, incarceration issues, Attica and, mostly significantly, blatant societal racism).
While Olsson makes a fine linear tapestry with the archival footage he has at his fingertips, what really makes “Black Power Mixtape” is the historical footage itself, especially the interviews. The speeches and intimate conversations of Carmichael and Davis, in particular, are the finest of the bunch. Their presence alone (or in Carmichael’s case, a familial scene with his mother), regardless of the leftist polemic, embodies the intelligent wisdom and fiery diatribe than infused the actions that carried the work Dr. King beyond nonviolent protestations and grabbed bigotry and xenophobia by the throat.
The weakest link of Olsson’s film is the unnecessary voice over narration by contemporary black musicians (particular emphasis here; Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Questlove), poets, professors and activists (Davis and Bobby Seale who were in the original footage, now decades later, reflecting). While their commentary is intimate and bound to be inspirational, it somewhat cheats the Swedish reporters and their point-of-view. Yes, this is not their America or cause. However, it’s their perspective, their footage we’re watching. American renditions and documentaries on this significant period in our history has been done and done again. And while there’s always room for more analysis and reflection, it feels slightly disingenuous to the foreign media and citizens who were witnessing our change from afar or as correspondents. Their story is just as relevant and noteworthy, and certainly a fresh take on things than hearing from the usual stable of revolutionaries, fundamental to the cause as they may be.
Aside from the voice over gripe (well, and the original soundtrack gives it a Nineties made-for-television vibe which is unfortunate), we’re left with a fascinating piece of well-documented history for us to chew on decades later thanks to the careful and considerate work of Olsson and his collaborators in finding and presenting the energetic, absorbing reporting by the Swedish journalists – reporting of a kind that could have used more of then, as well as now.