THE REVOLUTION HAS BEEN DOCUMENTED
By Mark Anthony Neal |with thanks to NewBlackMan
Saturday, March 3, 2012.
When the Black Power Mixtape premiered at the Sundance Film Festival a year ago with co-producer Danny Glover in tow, it generated a lot of excitement, as much for the promise of bringing the Black Power era in conversation with the hip-hop aesthetic as it was some confirmation of the distance traveled from outhouses to White Houses. Traveling the indie film route, few have had the chance to see the film, which recently debuted on public television as part of PBS’s long-running series, Independent Lens.
If Black Power could be thought of as a brand, there are few brands that have resonated as powerfully in American culture as it has. More than a brand and perhaps even more than a movement, Black Power has symbolized the possibilities of Black self-determination in virtually every aspect of the Black experience, which explains why the term has become the lingua franca from everyone from 1960s freedom fighters to 21st century rap artists reflecting on their personal wealth.
Many have sought to distance the Black Power era from the Civil Rights Movement. Historian and Martin Luther King, Jr. speechwriter Vincent Harding reminds in the book Redefining Black Power: Reflections of the State of Black America (edited by Joanne Griffith), “one of the most important teachings of many of the black power practitioners was their insistence that we stand with the poor, that we identify with the poor and, of course, King, himself, was very clearly saw that. That is why I don’t accept the “two camps” thing, because that is what he said explicitly.”
Beyond the “Sexy” the Black Power has come to represent in the popular imagination—the leather jackets, the berets, the guns—there were men and women who pushed back mightily against the status quo and the State in pursuit of broad-based social justice. The Black Power Mixtape valiantly attempts to pay tribute to those people.
The film, directed by Goran Hugo Olsson, primarily consists of archival footage collected by Swedish television journalists between 1967 and 1975. The footage is simply extraordinary; it highlights the incredible access that the journalists had to the movement, whether interviewing Stokely Carmichael in Stockholm, capturing the early morning song of Black children at the Black Panther Party breakfast program (“guns, pick up the guns, pick up the guns, put the pigs on the run.”) or sitting with legendary Harlem bookstore owner Lewis H. Michaux amidst his book collection, recalling Burgess Meredith in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Enough Time.” It is Michaux, who often hosted rallies in the front of his store featuring Malcolm X (el Hajj Malik el-Shabazz), who perhaps offers the important corrective to our understanding of Black Power arguing, “Black is beautiful, but black isn’t power; knowledge is power.”
Yet the value of that footage is continuously undermined by the inability of Olsson to provide enough context to the very images that prove so alluring to anyone who watches the film. There’s a telling scene, for example, early in the film, when members of the Swedish press are interviewing Stokely Carmichael’s mother Mabel in Chicago; it’s a touching moment, one where Ms. Carmichael’s son is captured in an unguarded moment, far removed from the fiery figure that mainstream America knew him as.
Yet Carmichael, grabs the microphone to conduct the interview with his mother asking her critical questions about race in America, that the film crew was largely incapable of asking. It’s a point that Angela Davis, who was on the FBI’s “most wanted list,” also makes even more dramatically in a prison interview, where she chides the interviewer for asking her to repudiate violence, without having a full understanding of the violence that had been historically directed at Black Americans.
In this regard, the film is perfectly suited for the Web 2.0 generation, who have become accustomed to being bombarded with unprecedented amounts of data without the benefit of historical or cultural context. In that spirit the film features voice-overs by figures like Erykah Badu, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and Talib Kweli, that understandably aim to connect the film to younger audiences, but often at the expense of hearing more profound commentary from others such as historian Robin DG Kelley, Sonia Sanchez, Melvin Van Peebles, Angela Davis, Kenneth Gamble, and Harry Belafonte, who suggest in passing, that what really led to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder’s was the leader’s “tampering with the playground of the wealthy” when he linked the war in Vietnam to America military industrial complex.
That said, the commentary of Hip-Hop generation artist John Forte about the realities of incarceration is one of the most compelling segments of the film, particularly when framed against the 1971 uprising at Attica State Prison. The Attica uprisings serve as a turning point in the Black Power Movement, seemingly marking the last strains of hope in the era, as the very forces that brutally silenced the voices at Attica, were doing the same to organizations like the Black Panther Party. This turning point has the same effect on The Black Power Mixtape, as the final segments of the film from 1972-1975, capture some of the aftermath of State repression—when the movement was no longer sexy and the evening news camera had long left the scene.
One of the figures who rose to national prominence in the aftermath of Attica was Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, then the head of the Nation’s Temple # 7—formerly Malcolm X’s (el Hajj Malik el-Shabazz) home-base in Harlem. Minister Farrakhan’s youthfulness is disarming, though his rhetoric and style portends the dramatic impact he would have on national politics a decade after the interview featured in the Black Power Mixtape appears. As Robin DG Kelley notes, the interview is notable because it finds Minister Farrakhan remaking the role of the Nation of Islam—a year before Elijah Muhammad’s death—fully jettisoning the confrontational politics that his late mentor Malcolm X promoted, to embrace a politics Black Respectability, well before the rise of this generation of Black mega-preachers.
Olsson’s decision to linger longer on the aftermath of the Black Power era, redeems the film in some ways. As the late Courtney Callender, one-time director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, laments “falling in love with black things for a short period of time is racist,” perhaps anticipating how thoughtlessly, far too many engage Black culture in our own moment.
When Erykah Badu’s implores African-Americans to tell their own story in the film’s final segment, The Black Power Mixtape comes full circle. Somewhere there’s a young, enterprising filmmaker, who will get access to this remarkable archive and in the spirit of her ancestors, do the necessary work of remixing The Black Power Mixtape.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press) and Professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is founder and managing editor of NewBlackMan and host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. Follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan.