Saturday 8 October 2011

At the LFF: "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75"

Here's news of a coming together you'll find either unlikely or inevitable, depending on your sensibilities. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the ultra-liberal Swedish National Broadcast dispatched several of its reporters Stateside to file a series of reports on African-African lives and the growing Black Power movement. These reports' tone ranged from the broadly sympathetic to the outright fascinated; after all, interest in revolutionary activity certainly wasn't limited to the U.S., as the terror campaigns of the Red Brigade and the Baader-Meinhofs went to demonstrate. Yet this hands-across-the-Atlantic enterprise came at a particular, traumatic moment in American history, one marked by bloodshed both on foreign soil (in South East Asia) and at home, where 1968 alone brought the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and two Black Panther leaders.

The footage, gathered in Göran Olsson's new documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75, thus provides a potted history, nodding obliquely towards technological progress (roughly: the Sixties were in black-and-white, the Seventies in colour) while charting the movement's gradual adoption of a more militaristic stance, from Harry Belafonte through Bobby Seale to Louis Farrakhan. Individual clips cover a wide range of subjects: a deft profile of the cool charisma and verbal acuity of Stokely Carmichael, a key Black Power figure often overshadowed by the contributions of Malcolm X (already dead by '67) and Dr. King (who appears somewhat small and nervy in these reports, as though he knew what was coming), missives from the ghettoes of New York and Washington that seem to be engaged in the same kind of conscience-pricking as Cathy Come Home was in the UK, lingering on the grimy furniture and irreparably tangled blinds of poky, make-do slum accommodation.

Other clips capture the absurdity of the moment. J. Edgar Hoover denounces the Panthers' "Free Breakfast" program for underprivileged black children as "the biggest internal threat that America currently faces"; interviewed during his Algerian exile, Panthers leader Eldridge Cleaver compares his plight to that of the South Vietnamese; while Merrill Pannitt, then-editor of conservative-owned listings mag TV Guide, sparks a debate in insisting that the European media - including our plucky Scandinavian interlocutors - have become fixated on the "negative" aspects of American life, a decidedly poor choice of adjective from a figure doing his level best to appear the very model of the rich, clueless white man.

Any flimsy nostalgia (the wild hair and sideburns! The smoking!) is immediately stomped by a typically Nordic conceptual heft: for context, we have the likes of Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Angela Davis et al. narrating, describing what it is (if anything) these images say to them some four decades on, and establishing an eloquent, informed, sometimes angry or rueful dialogue between the past and the present, occasionally correcting or amending the good liberal intentions of the original footage. That footage - from a time when public figures appeared greatly less guarded on camera - is very nearly vibrant enough in itself; the observation of inner-city street life, with the exception of the litter and the fashions, could have been shot yesterday, which you may take as a form of social criticism. Given the title, it seems perverse that the only non-incidental music we hear should be relegated to the end credits (history and politics trump culture here), but anyone convinced we're living through 1968 all over again - witnessing the rise of an underclass (in the recent riots) and the travails of a black leader (this time, a President) accused of trying to brainwash America with socialism - will otherwise find much that sings out to them.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75 screens at the NFT on Fri 14 at 9pm and Mon 17 at 3.30pm, before opening in selected cinemas nationwide on October 21.

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