Most of us see the world through American eyes, contextualizing modern political struggles through selective memories. Whether consuming news from Libya, Iran or Occupied Portland, it’s impossible to step entirely outside our class station and our privileged place on the globe.
Which makes The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 a curiosity worth beholding. It is previously unseen footage shot by a Swedish film team in the wake of the murders of two Kennedys and a King, amid the rise of the Black Panthers and boiling racial tension. Director Göran Olsson assembles the footage (much of it grainy black and white, some of it resembling a mod-era Swedish Frontline episode) into a jarring snapshot of a bleak time in American history told by people observing from half a world away, and spotting the tender sides of larger-than-life figures we often view as titans rather than humans.
The film begins with a disclaimer—“This film does not presume to tell the whole story of the Black Power Movement, but to show how it was perceived by some Swedish filmmakers”—before launching into a nine-chapter crash course on African-American militancy, from the rise of fiery orator Stokely Carmichael to the trial of academic Angela Davis, the abandonment of nonviolence and the emergence of Louis Farrakhan and the post-Vietnam heroin epidemic. The years go by at a lightning pace, aided by off-screen commentary by the film’s surviving subjects as well as modern musicians such as Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli and Questlove (who also arranged the music).
At 95 minutes, Mixtape is far too short for the depth of its subject, but the film succeeds in telling a uniquely American story about a searing chapter in our national history through the eyes of outside observers. It’s a turnabout from the way we observe the Arab Spring from the comfort of our homes, away from the despair and violence.
We are a nation of media junkies who consume news in sound bites and through the lenses of our own personal experiences. The Black Power Mixtape shows us how other countries might see our own internal struggles. Surprise: It’s not always pretty.
73 SEE IT: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 opens Friday at Cinema 21.