Friday, September 16, 2011

Angela Davis Speaks: 'The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975'

Angela Davis

From the Wall Street Journal Online, "The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975," by Steve Dollar, on 15 September 2011: If, as Winston Churchill said, "History is written by the victors," then perhaps it is rewritten by the janitors. Not that filmmaker Göran Olsson was on custodial duty the day he stumbled upon a small mountain of 16mm film reels stashed in the basement of the Swedish Television offices in 2007. But in reclaiming endless hours of interviews shot by crews dispatched to survey the volatile American political scene of the Vietnam Era—aka "The Sixties"—Mr. Olsson has done something close to that.

Angela Davis

Edited down to a remarkably concise 100-minute collage, "The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975" chronicles the Black Power movement from the inside-out. The documentary uses the vintage material, originally used for a series of broadcasts on Swedish Television (before going missing for some four decades) to present the major personas of the movement—Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale and others—neither as larger-than-life icons of resistance nor the angry rabble-rousers demonized by the media. They're just regular folks, standing up for their own at a time when every facet of American society seemed to be turning upside down. The film's soft-spoken vibe is encouraged by the polite engagement of 16 Swedish journalists involved in the original interviews that were broadcast back in Scandinavia, as well as the laid-back grooves of a soundtrack composed by Roots drummer Amir "Questlove" Thompson.
Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Toure) interviewing his mother, Mabel R. Carmichael.

The discoveries of these pale strangers in a strange land are due, perhaps, to their foreign non-combativeness, but they get to truths that were largely overlooked by the major American networks. Mr. Carmichael interviews his mother about the family's hard times. Ms. Davis, her afro coiffure buoyant even in the California State Prison, schools her interviewer on the meaning of revolution and the question of violence. The encounters are mediated by a chorus of unseen voices, such as former Columbia University professor Robin D.G. Kelley, Brooklyn hip-hop star Talib Kweli, Harry Belafonte and Ms. Davis herself, speaking in 2010.
Angela Davis interview

The aim is not to make revisionist claims as much as it is to frame the period in a broader, more human perspective, stripped of hype and hysteria. Though much of it feels past tense, the relevance has yet to fade. As Mr. Kweli relates, he was detained at JFK once, post-9/11, and questioned about a tape of Mr. Carmichael's he'd been listening to—somehow overheard when he'd called to make a JetBlue reservation. "The FBI is still scared of this man," he says. It's one of the revealing moments that make "The Black Power Mixtape" essential viewing. (source: Wall Street Journal)


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