The director of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 talks about how he unearthed unseen video of activists and enlisted the input of Questlove,Talib Kweli, and others
The faces onscreen are familiar: Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton, Angela Davis, and Eldridge Cleaver.
So are the events depicted, among them the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Olympic black power salute, the Attica riot, and the Vietnam War.
Yet The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, a documentary opening in limited release this weekend and premiering on demand September 14, offers the rare chance to experience them anew.
Drawn from hours of long-buried footage shot by Swedish journalists—consisting of interviews with many of the premiere black power figures and an in-depth dissection of a divided America rife with profound social unrest—this 100-minute compendium reframes what was once widely seen as a radical movement as an important, necessary step on the road toward full equality.
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Here, Black Power Mixtape filmmaker Göran Olsson shares his thoughts on the ambitious project.
How'd you come across this footage and what was your initial reaction to it?
I heard rumors since I was a very young filmmaker that Sweden had more material on the Black Panthers than in America. I didn't believe it. Researching for another project, I stumbled across this. I realized first of all, this could be a great film and secondly, it's my duty to put this out. This should not be lying around here. It's for a lot of other people around the world.
Why were all these influential people so open with the Swedish journalists?
Being from the outside was a very important factor, but also Swedes had a reputation at the time. It started long before, when Dr. [Martin Luther] King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. That connected the establishment in Sweden to the civil rights movement. And then the younger people connected to what came after Dr. King. All these people had been in Sweden, lecturing in universities, so I think they knew that people in Sweden [were] open and interested in these subjects.
Another factor I think is Sweden was neutral at the time. This was the peak of the Cold War, you could say, and Sweden decided—being a tiny but very rich country—that Swedes should produce all media for Swedes. So we had people going all around the world, reporting to the Swedish audience.
Do you get the sense that, in recent years, there's been a re-evaluation of the Black Power movement?
What I really feel, studying this as an outsider [is], I think, that the stigma or the label that these people had for being violent and terrorists, or whatever, that's started to change. The mainstream society took the J. Edgar Hoover view of them as dangerous to society, and a threat to everyone basically, and I think that's total crap.
You have to remember that these people were not extra violent or driven by rage, or something. They all came from university. Even the Panthers started at Berkeley. This was the first generation, you could say, that got an education. They used that education to think critically.
What about their general rejection of non-violence?
There's [another] misunderstanding. You're talking about non-violence. That's a method. That's a method you can use, like [Mahatma] Gandhi and Dr. King. You gather a lot of people and stand passively. It's not a passive method because it's active. You have to get there. You have to get on the docks. You have to get to Washington. It's not passive, non-violence.
If you're saying non-violence doesn't work, it's a method that doesn't work. It doesn't mean you have to pick up a gun. It means that the non-violent method didn't work. [The belief was] we have to write books. We have to educate people. Saying no to the method of non-violence, that doesn't mean violence.
Why did you seek commentary from younger musicians such as Talib Kweli and Questlove?
This archive is extraordinary in several senses. It's also very crisp, high-resolution, well-preserved, so you don't get tired looking at it. However brilliant and good [it might be], a film from archives [is] claustrophobic. In order to put oxygen into the container of this footage you have to have something outside, from today. Commentaries, was my idea. And then I had of course Angela [Davis] commenting and then we needed some [different] dynamic from this commentary in order to have this oxygen process, to not make it too contained.
I knew from the music of Talib Kweli, Questlove, Erykah Badu that they would be people who would be interested in seeing this and have something interesting to say about it. I showed them some clips and asked them to comment on the clips. They were amazed, totally amazed, and they commented different ways. Erykah Badu at one point said, "I have nothing to say. Could I sing instead?"
In securing interviews, do you think your outsider status helped?
I got I think the same attitude as the filmmakers got in the '60s and '70s. People were so generous, you know. That's the positive thing of being an outsider, coming from this remote country in the North Pole, or whatever. People were so generous. They understand I don't have the American experience, I don't have the language, I don't understand, but I'm looking to [learn]. They try to explain to me. Not like a child. But try to explain. They're not suspicious in a way they should be with an American filmmaker or even a British filmmaker, who has been through this.
Why do you admire the black power leaders profiled here?
You can agree or disagree with an Angela Davis or a Stokely Carmichael but you have to give them all the respect. Democracy is not a constant state. Democracy is something like boiling water—you have to put energy under the water all the time to keep it cooking. These people, they put energy into the process of democracy, and you have to do that all the time, or you get a deadlock.