Cinematic Politics and Passion: ‘The Black Power Mixtape’ As Timeless | Urban Cusp

Cinematic Politics and Passion: ‘The Black Power Mixtape’ As Timeless

By David J. Leonard

UC Columnist

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.

Continue reading @ Cinematic Politics and Passion: ‘The Black Power Mixtape’ As Timeless | Urban Cusp.

Marc Robinson: Priceless Footage, but Limited as a Teaching Tool: Black Power Mixtape (2011)

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.