Priceless Footage, but Limited as a Teaching Tool: Black Power Mixtape (2011) – Film Review
Marc Arsell Robinson
Special to No Tsuris
Black Power Mixtape (2011) is a documentary about the Black Power Movement that uses footage taken by Swedish filmmakers between 1967 and 1975. It is the latest in a string of documentaries about the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements released in the past few years. These include Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power (2005), Neshoba: The Price of Freedom (2008), Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968 (2009), and Soundtrack for a Revolution (2010). The archival footage in Mixtape contributes priceless visual imagery of 1960’s and 1970’s Black politics, but the film itself lacks a coherent or engaging narrative.
The film does provide exceptional moments, such as when Stokely Carmichael interviews his mother about their family’s struggles during Stokely’s childhood. Best of all is an impromptu speech given by Angela Davis about White repressive violence and Black self-defense. As David Leonard wrote in another review of the film, “Humanizing the movement and focusing on the interpersonal dynamics in a core theme of the film.”
However, as a historical text, I found the film disappointing. Undoubtedly, the movie was limited by the footage available; and it even opens with the following statement, “This film…does not presume to tell the whole story of the Black Power Movement, but to show how it was perceived by some Swedish filmmakers.” Thus, its creators deserve credit for recognizing Mixape’s shortcomings. Yet, although the documentary’s weaknesses can be forgiven, they unfortunately limit the film’s use as a teaching tool.
At times Mixtape presents an inaccurate chronology, like when it introduces the Black Panthers in its 1969 section, even though the organization was formed in 1966. In addition, the latter section of the film, on 1970-1975, becomes increasingly unfocused as the film shifts to concentrate on Black ghetto life and drug usage. The narrative further breaks down when the War on Drugs is discussed, which did not begin in earnest until the 1980’s. While the introduction and promotion of drugs like heroin, and later crack cocaine, certainly deserves a place in the story of Black Power, here it undermines the films coherence.
Moreover, the section on the 1970’s leaves out other notable developments such as the proliferation of Black cultural nationalism in the form of fashion, food, entertainment and culture. Also left out is Black Power’s increasing presence in electoral politics such as the Black Panthers’ bid for offices in Oakland and the Black Political Conventions of the early 70’s. Other topics that could have been address were the proliferation of Black Studies and Black Power’s impact in education, as well as the issues of masculinity and gender within the movement. Unfortunately, Mixtape ends up perpetuating the erroneous notion that the Black Power Movement was effectively over by 1971, save the Angela Davis trial.
Therefore, Mixtape would not be best for 100 or 200 level students, or as an introductory source on the Black Power Movement. Certain sections might be useful, but other films like Eyes on the Prize: Power!, Eyes on the Prize: A Nation of Law?, Negroes with Guns, and Scarred Justice are better suited for introductory purposes. However, for advanced students and scholars of the period, the film provides invaluable imagery of the 1960’s and 70’s Black Freedom Struggle.
Marc A. Robinson is a PhD candidate in the American Studies Program and teaches in the Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies Department at Washington State University. His dissertation is on the Black Student Union and Black Power in the late 1960’s. Follow him @MarcARobinson1.