Monday, January 23, 2012

Black Power Mix Tapes 1967-1975: A Review

Between the late 1960s and the 1970s, Black America had undergone huge transformations. This was due largely to the Civil Rights Movement, but the Black Power Movement not only heightened the social and political consciousness of black people in America, but also set trends in the look and attitude of young black people across the country. Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), broke ranks with civil rights leader Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in terms of their philosophical attitudes regarding social and political movements, and pursued a more aggressive stance toward black liberation. Coining the phrase, “Black Power,” Carmichael embraced the philosophy of self-defense, inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, which was formed in the mid-60s by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton to resist political and economic oppression. By the late sixties, black folks were chanting “Black Power” and rejecting the non-violence philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement.

The radicalization of Black America has been chronicled in many works, including Henry Hampton’s award-winning documentary series “Eyes on the Prize.” But, until recently, very few focused solely on the Black Power Movement. Last year, IFC Entertainment released The Black Power Mix Tapes 1967-1975, a documentary film based on archival footage shot by Swedish journalists. Written and directed by filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson, the film offers a more balanced look at that period in Black American history.

The archival footage that was shot during this period are edited in chronological order in the film and broken down into 9 chapters, beginning with 1967 and ending in 1975. The film not only covers Carmichael’s rejection of Dr. King’s philosophy, but the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, and Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam in the mid-1970s. The Vietnam War and the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy in the late 60s, as well as the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which destroyed the Black Panthers and other militant groups and the break down of the black community due to poverty and drugs in the ‘70s act as backdrops against the movement, offering as explanation its militancy and eventual tragedies.

The footage is strong and offers sides of the power players in the movement that weren’t available on American TV. In fact, the film brings up the notion of journalistic propaganda when an editor of TV Guide criticizes the anti-American negativity in much of the reporting in Sweden. While the editor concedes during an interview taken by the Swedish film crew that much of the news coming out of the States is negative, he goes on to state that Americans have a far more complex view of what was happening in the country at the time than the Swedes. This is hardly a winning argument, but it does reveal how propaganda against black radicals was filtered through even fluff publications like TV Guide. The footage the Swedish journalist shot is relevant because, unlike many American journalism, it offers a different, more balanced perspective of black radical politics.

Undercutting the footage are voice interviews of figures as diverse as Angela Davis, commenting much on her own experiences during that time; Harry Belafonte, Questlove of the Roots, singers Erykah Badu and John Forte, poets Sonia Sanchez and Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets and other philosophical and historical luminaries. Their reflections of that period offer a context that bridges the past with the present, drawing connections between the advances of the Black Power Movement and its failures.

While the film is informative and valuable, there are a few drawbacks. As the filmmakers Olssen contends, the Black Power Mix Tapes doesn’t cover everything that happened during that period. Nor should it have to. Yet the latter half of the film falters because of those omissions. During the 1974-1975 chapters, the documentary focuses on Harlem and how the drug war caused a terrible and irrevocable shift in the black community. The West coast, which had gotten some coverage due to the Black Panthers movement, is ignored, which is a shame since so much was happening here in the 1970s, from the rise of the Bloods and the Crips in the Los Angeles region due to the fractionalization of many Black Power groups to the disintegration of the Black Panthers and its leaders, including Huey Newton. Despite that one flaw, the documentary is a powerful chronicle of a movement that is largely warped in the American imagination and offers a primer to those who want to know more about this significant period in political history.

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