Cinematic Politics and Passion: ‘The Black Power Mixtape’ As Timeless
By David J. Leonard
Eye on Culture: Movie Review
In a recent New York Times article, Nelson George identifies an emerging group of promising black filmmakers that are challenging both the hegemonic representations and the recent scarcity of black-themed and black-directed films. Focusing on Dee Rees’ Pariah, while noting also Rashaad Ernesto Green’s “Gun Hill Road,” Andrew Dosunmu’s “Restless City,” Alrick Brown’s “Kinyarwanda” and Victoria Mahoney’s “Yelling to the Sky”, George offers an optimistic examination of the state of African Americans within Hollywood.
George describes Pariah as “not simply … a promising directorial debut, but also as the most visible example of the mini-movement of young black filmmakers telling stories that complicate assumptions about what ‘black film’ can be by embracing thorny issues of identity, alienation and sexuality.” Noting the ways in which these films challenge conventional notions of black authenticity and the hegemony of the “ghettocentric imagination,” George argues that these films move beyond the politics of respectability, beyond blaxploitation, beyond binaries, and beyond presenting narratives that reaffirm black fitness for assimilation and acceptance. Accordingly, he writes,
This current mini-movement has none of the certainty about black identity that defined previous periods. Identity — the search for it, the limitations of it, its fluidity — is at the core of all these dramas. Such themes speak to a sophistication that previous generations of filmmakers didn’t possess or rejected since rigid definitions of racial identity are much easier to market. Then again, none of these films have made a substantial dent at the box office.
Celebrating the great potential here, George misses an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which documentary films, which in recent years have been some of the most popular and widely circulated black films (minus those of Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels). These films have filled a gap left by a Hollywood increasingly unwilling to support black filmmakers (and those other films that don’t replicate the proven blockbuster strategies; that don’t have overseas potential; that don’t appeal to white suburban audiences). While there are countless examples in this regard – When the Levees Broke, Good Hair, The Black List, Letter to the President and Troubles of the Water – one of the most prominent examples from 2011 was The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975.
Directed by Göran Hugo Olsson, a Swedish filmmaker, The Black Power Mixtape brings together footage from prominent Swedish television journalists and other individuals. Sampling from the idea of a mixed-tape, Olsson does not try to chronicle the definitive history of the black power movement, but instead pieces together the myriad of images and footage found buried in the archives of a Swedish television station. Instead, he uses interviews with Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Louis Farrakhan and countless other activists involved in various black power organizations and movements to highlight a sense of identity, political purpose, and ethos that emerged during the late 1960s and 1970s.
In repelling a traditional narrative, even as the film offers a linear presentation of the black power movement, The Black Power Mixtape relies on audio commentary from a host of individuals (Talib Kweli, Questlove, Erykah Badu, Robin Kelley, Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis) to bind the footage together. Commenting on the history and the footage itself, the voice-overs provide needed depth and analysis; yet don’t function as an intrusion into the footages, the images of New York or Oakland in the late 1960s, or the sounds that emanated from this era. As a DJ might, they facilitate and remix, yet they never overwhelm and disrupt the visual representations available in the film.
The Black Power Mixtape starts with Stokely Carmichael describing black power, its relationship to the mainstream of the Civil Rights Movement, and the dialectics between identity formation and the politics of the late 1960s. In one of the films most dynamic scenes, Carmichael interviews his mother about their experiences growing up in New York and how racism limited opportunities for each member of the family. Stokely methodologically asks questions of his mother, leading her to share the profound and violent impact of white supremacy. Here, we see Carmichael’s brilliance not as a speaker but as an analytical thinker. Describing Carmichael as a “regular dude,” Talib Kweli captures the power of this scene in that it, like the larger film, challenges narrative that depicts the movement only through rhetoric and not the people involved in the movement.