Sunday, 23 January 2011
SUNDANCE 2011: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
By Alan Bacchus
The Sundance program guide lists this film as a Swedish/US production, directed by Goran Hugo Olsson. Huh? The opening text quickly explains to us what we’re watching and why - a compilation of footage from 1967-1975 shot by Swedish television documenting the events and people which made up the larger black power movement in the United States. We’re told that this account should not be taken as a definitive summary of these events, but a unique Swedish point of view.
Why Swedish? The largely socialist and white Scandinavian country serves as cultural and political antithesis to the American way of life. Yet the Swedes are wholly fascinated by American lifestyle, and in their TV footage seem to observe the conflicts within American like animals in a zoo.
Each act in this film corresponds to the nine years in the title. The opening years are the years of Stokely Carmichael and his friendly competition with the non-violent ways of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Carmichael footage, much of it shot during a European visit is a treasure. The articulations of the plight of his people and the justification of his antagonistic ways are truly inspiring.
Curiously a voiceover with today’s black leaders such Talib Kweli, Robin Kelley and John Forte explains the context of the imagery and the 21st century point of view, an inclusion I just couldn‘t reconcile with the guidelines we received at the opening of the film. Thus, despite the magnificent footage, the film seems unfocused, and actually betrays what seemed to be the point of view of the film.
As each chapter passes and we see the tide of support for the movement change over the years these inconsistencies dissolve away, leaving us completely attached to the sights and sounds of what’s on the screen.
Black and white turns to colour in the 70’s and the verite footage of streetwise Harlem in the latter portions of the picture are astonishing. The crisp and pristine images are indistinguishable to its age. In fact, at times it feels as if we’re watching a recreation of these times from a Spike Lee movie.
In the final years, as the documentary moves towards the sombre downturn of Black Power when idealism and political action gave way to drugs, political counteraction by government authorities, the film comes off as a sad time capsule of one of the darker periods in U.S. history.