REVIEW – The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)

FilmJuice have my review of Goran Olsson’s archival documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975.

Back in the 60s, a group of Swedish journalists traveled to California in the hopes of understanding the American mindset. Once there, the filmmakers slowly found themselves gravitating away from ‘mainstream’ America and towards the burgeoning Black Power movement centered upon the Black Panther party. Nothing much was done with this footage at the time and so it sat in a vault for several decades until researchers uncovered it and turned it into a film. At its best, Black Power Mixtape is shining a fascinating and historically important light on a radical political movement whose reputation has long been unfairly tarnished. Unfortunately, once the film moves beyond the footage of the Black Panthers, the problems start to stack up:

Sadly, once the Black Power Mixtape shifts its emphasis from the Black Panthers to the Nation of Islam and the War on Drugs, the documentary begins to lose both its precision and its power.  An interview with Louis Farrakhan is eerie in its fantastical delusions and the documentary’s uncritical attitude towards the idea that the Nation of Islam offers a disciplined lifestyle heralds the arrival of a number of bizarre conspiracy theories including the somewhat inconsistent view that the authorities both turned a blind-eye to the drug trade in Black areas and cracked down on the drug trade in Black areas in a way that damaged the community and undermined the pursuit of civil rights.

Equally unconvincing are the documentary’s attempts to articulate the Swedish perspective on the civil rights movement.  While the amusing footage of Swedish tourists travelling round Harlem in a bus suggests that there is something vaguely inauthentic about Swedish concern for American civil rights, the documentary never manages to articulate what it is that is particularly Swedish about any of the footage or the interviews. Frankly, these could have come from the vaults of any European television station.

There’s no denying that this is an important film and I can completely understand why Sight and Sound magazine made it their film of the month. However, in an effort to expand the film to feature length and widen the scope of its observations, the film puts out a number of thematic feelers (war on drugs, Swedish opinions of 60s America) that not only fail to pay off but actually muddy the waters sufficiently that they distract from the power and importance of the film’s opening third.