'The Black Power Mixtape': Who's Telling You Your Stories?

Left neglected in a Swedish TV station's cellar for 30 years,includes "socially conscious" artists and a sweet soundtrack crafted by ?uestlove... what was there not to love? How about everything minus the soundtrack?
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I was dopily excited to hear about this doc via Danny Glover on Democracy Now way back when he was still shopping it around the Sundance Film Festival. The Black Power Mixtape is a compilation of never-before-seen footage of the Black Power movement shot by Swedish journalists in the 1960s and 1970s. Left neglected in a Swedish TV station's cellar for 30 years, it was discovered by documentary filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson who conceptualized the linking of the sparse and seemingly incohesive material of the movement with amazingly shot intimate b-roll of children playing in defunct playgrounds, commentary from Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, John Forte and other "socially conscious" artists, looped to a sweet soundtrack crafted by none-other than ?uestlove... what was there not to love?

How about everything I just described minus the soundtrack?

The "Experts"

I love Badu, I do, but I couldn't stand how many times her commentary was featured. There just wasn't enough "a-ha!" moments to justify giving her the mic that many times in the doc. The decision to have contemporary "socially conscious" artists comment at all, had to be purely for marketing purposes. I get it; throw some ?uestlove commissioned tracks on there, let the artists attempt to relate to a time in history they [seemed] to know little about and the 20-something year old viewers will follow. I know I did, and It was cute for while but a catchy hook can piss you off and that's essentially what happened here. The marketing move turned gimmicky too soon, and vastly overshadowed the very critical and analytical commentary shared by those like professor Robin Kelley, Kathleen Cleaver or Angela Davis, who actually have the street cred to talk about this specific moment in time.

From Dr. Jared A. Ball, a professor of communications at Morgan State University via BAR:

The value of Black Power Mixtape, particularly in its rare footage of many of the era's brightest leaders, is far outweighed by what has to be considered the film's light or lazy research. For instance, why are there no contemporary interviews in the film with the political heirs of the Black Power Movement? The contemporary interviews with Angela Davis focus on her historical role as a Black Power era icon but say little of her current work or the relevance of her analysis in 1975 to 2011. Kwame Ture is similarly left in 1968 despite having lived another 30 years and leaving any number of admirers and members of his organization -- still in existence -- the All African People's Revolutionary Party, none of whom are interviewed in the film.

"We need to tell our stories"

Now that was an "A-ha!"moment. Ironically, Badu spits some sense about the need for us to tell our own stories -- to ensure we don't get nixed out of our own history but I can't help but think that this comment was kept in to suggest that this particular retelling of what happened during the Black Power movement is somehow authentic -- that or Olsson was a twisted sense of humor. It is not. Since the archived footage was shot, edited and directed by Swedes it cannot inherently be "authentic". In this instance, we may have told our stories to a rolling camera but we did not decide what was left in, what was kept out, and the overall messaging that would be conveyed to the consumer. Over at Colorlines Olsson explains how being an outsider, a Swede helped (rather than hindered) him create this film:

For this project, I'm not thinking about myself as a white man; I'm thinking about myself as a Swede. I'm an outsider looking at something that I can identify with. I'm using the same method -- or lack of method, lack of knowledge -- as the filmmaker and journalist did back when they recorded the images. You know what I mean? The reception that I got, and that the documentarians and journalists got in the '60s and '70s -- coming from Sweden, knocking on the Black Panthers' door, and saying, "Hello, we are from Sweden, what are you doing here?" These people understand that I don't have all the history, but they also understand that I'm not stupid, even though I don't have the language.

Whether Olsson believes he is white in the American sense isn't important, but his ability to confidently list a lack of knowledge, and "outsidership" as qualifications for telling this story should raise a brow or two because it is exactly these "qualifications" that are commonly used to colonize black culture. If lack of melanin doesn't disqualify Olsson than perhaps mentality should; when Olsson uses the word "outsider" to describe himself he assumes this is a novel way of approaching black culture, despite the fact that this voyeuristic way of documenting is a favorite for white American filmmakers (Hoop Dreams, Waiting for Superman... ). In one scene, a busload of white tourists wind their way through the Harlem jungle, the guide warns the tourists of the violent dangers that await them if they wander there on their own. Not even the more affluent Coloreds dare go, he warns. Like the bus tour guide, Olsson ignores and warns. He ignores our history by using his "lack of knowledge" method (but attempts to call it objectivity) and he warns the viewer of the in-applicability of a movement that uses self-defense as a tactic to redistribute power.

To its credit, The Black Power Mixtape did show the Black Power movement in a more positive light by demonstrating how a people could be moved to (and rightfully so) pick up arms and defend themselves from police brutality, and by highlighting the lesser known programs that were beneficial to the black community's survival like free breakfast programs for children. Where the film fell shortest was in its inability or unwillingness to connect this extraordinary moment in history to the injustices we face today.

From Ball:

The message is clear; while the Black Power Movement was too big then and too iconic today to be ignored, it must only be viewed as a relic of history not as a programmatic guide for improving the world today. Praise the movement in its time only. The ideas, strategies and tactics that once challenged the world and inspired millions are of no use in 2011 despite the fact that every single solitary thing those women and men fought to eradicate is still here and worse than ever.

The only visual vestiges I had of the black power movement before seeing this doc were the same ones I left with: remnants of a commodified culture of natural's and hair grease, black leather jackets, and clenched fists, to be adorned on t-shirts, posters and coffee mugs. Way too eager to indulge in the movement nostalgia of a youth from a generation ago it is easy to leave the theater's feeling rejuvenated but see the film again and you realize it's the footage, not the film that deserves your praise.

Go see The Black Power Mixtape if you want to, but go in knowing that it's your history chopped and screwed like always.

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