The Promise of Black Power, Seen Through a European Lens

A documentary reminds us why the black power movement is still relevant

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Sundance Selects

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 , released on DVD this month, is a documentary culled from Swedish television footage of the American black power movement. As such, it presents an unsettlingly European perspective on race in America. From bloated, aging white sunbathers on Miami Beach to apparently menacing, poor, black Harlem residents glimpsed through bus windows, Americans, one and all, are turned into anthropological oddities, quaint parables, and eccentric amusements. In short, the Swedes do to us what we are so accustomed to doing to the rest of the world.

The turnabout definitely has an air of enjoyable schadenfreude. But there's a painful touch of truth there as well. The Swedes are much more sympathetic to the oppressed black underclass than they are to the oppressive white majority government. And yet we're all being watched through that European lens. What white and black Americans have never quite been able to do for ourselves, the Swedes do for us, granting every race equality through the blind justice of documentary condescension.

The black power movement hoped for a different kind of world, where violence would not be necessary

That isn't to say that an American documentary on this topic would be better. Quite the opposite. The Swedes are clearly repulsed by what they perceive as white America's smugness and brutality, and are fascinated by black America's courage, resistance…and brutality. As Stokely Carmichael explains in a fascinating 1967 interview, the black power movement had respect and even reverence for Martin Luther King, but it defined itself in large part in opposition to his non-violent tactics.

"[Dr. King] is a man who could accept the uncivilized behavior of white Americans, their unceasing taunts, and still have in his heart forgiveness,” Carmichael says. “Unfortunately, I am from a younger generation. I am not as patient as Dr. King and I am not as merciful as Dr. King. And their unwillingness to deal with someone like Dr. King just means they have to deal with this younger generation."

And so, deal with it they did, mostly by shooting it and putting it in jail. One of the more painful moments in the film is an interview with Bobby Seale, where he explains calmly, earnestly, and convincingly that the Black Panther party is armed and will shoot any "racist dog policeman" who tries to give it trouble because the members of the party are "bent on surviving." Of course, those racist dog policemen eventually imprisoned Seale for years, and racist dog FBI agents broke the Panthers apart. The fatal flaw with black power is that however many guns you buy, whitey always has more.

Or at least, whitey always had more. Today, the man with the most guns in the entire world is black. I'm sure Barack Obama could wax more eloquent than I on the mistakes of the Black Panthers, but there's a very real sense in which he is the ultimate fulfillment of their dream as much, if not more, than of Martin Luther King's. Eldridge Cleaver, for example, speaking from exile in Algeria, talks about his hope that black communities in the U.S. might obtain a limited sovereignty. And now, 40+ years later, a black man commands not a limited sovereignty, but the whole sovereignty kaboodle.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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