Film Review: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Wonderfully incisive portrait of a thrilling, fraught era in which the fight for right inspired not only Americans, but those living abroad as well.

If anything, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 will make you wonder—once more—whatever happened to the spirit of healthy protest in this country. Exacerbating this question is the fact that it was made, not by an American, but by a Swedish director, Göran Hugo Olsson, who used a trove of pertinent period footage culled from his country’s television archives, and added to them modern-day interviews.

What exactly made the Swedes so fascinated by the rise of African-American activism in the period following the early days of the Civil Rights movement is never directly addressed, but one feels like this most lily-white and seemingly tranquil of countries must have been mesmerized by the raw fervor and vivid passion and personalities involved. Olsson takes it year by year, as we see the heady, inspiriting rise of black leadership with eloquent, early spokesmen like Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton, through Angela Davis’ notorious chapter when she was unfairly targeted by the government for murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy, and the movement’s eventual dissipation, which was a sad reflection of the overwhelming blight of drugs which helped destroy a people and their will to fight for justice. The stirring, truly political words and sentiments of those pioneering voices stand in stark contrast to the simplistic rantings of a modern leader like Louis Farrakhan, lengthily railing against the evils of eating pork.

Olsson has uncovered some real archival gems here, like a 1967 encounter with Carmichael and his mother, which reveals a rare and gentle human side, devoid of his more familiar fiery rhetoric. A 1972 prison interview with Davis fully reminds us of her iconic stature during this time, with her striking Afro and simple, direct eloquence. It was indeed an era of beautiful black sisters, something which footage of Cleaver’s exquisite wife, Kathleen, only reinforces.

In the present American time where, despite severe economic and racial challenges (none of which seems to have changed all that much from the years this film covers), youthful energy seems more directed to the easy, empty attainment of celebrity, hip-hop music’s much narrower purview (as opposed to, say, the 1960s anthem “Burn, Baby, Burn,” which is heard here) and the material acquisition of designer everything, it would indeed be salutary if this film were made a part of every high-school curriculum. While most everyone said the McCarthy era of shutting down reasoned dissent could never happen again, the post-9/11 years have shown us how scarily close to this period we are again verging, and this film proves a serious reminder of what we once were and could yet be.