A deep, abiding love of early-1970s rhythm and blues led to the making of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, one of the most powerful, intriguing and unlikely documentaries of this year. Four years ago, Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson was working on Am I Black Enough for You, a 2009 film about Billy Paul, the great Philadelphia-based soul singer, when he heard of some footage shot by several Swedish broadcast journalists on their visits to the United States in the late '60s and '70s.
"I thought it was a myth," Olsson told The Root during a September interview in New York, where the film made its theatrical premiere. When he visited the basement of the Stockholm TV station that functioned as an informal archive, he was astonished. There were nearly 85 hours of footage from America shot during the peak of the black power movement. "Ten, maybe 15 hours of it was just golden," he said, excitement rising in his voice.
Olsson's exhilaration was not without cause. The archives included exclusive and intimate interviews with Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver, plus several wonderful, informal conversations with Stokely Carmichael. Olsson wanted to cull the material into a film, and to raise the money, he visited Louverture Films, the production company run by Joslyn Barnes and Danny Glover, who helped secure funding for the film.
"There's truth, and then there's how that truth is framed," Glover told The Root. He said that he was particularly impressed by how Olsson's work liberated the black power movement from its conventional presentation. "The mainstream media trivialized and criminalized the movement," he said. "This film shows the black power movement as a natural evolution out of the civil rights movement."
In chronicling the movement, the film also adroitly tells the story of the era, capturing key moments such as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the rise of the Black Panther Party, the trial of Angela Davis and the uprising at Attica. It also attributes the decline of the movement to the influx of guns and illicit drugs into African-American communities. It doesn't fully answer the question about the movement's lasting impact, but there is one art form that was undeniably influenced by it — at least at its inception.
"You can hear the impact of the movement in the early stages and the evolution of hip-hop — there's a resistance in the music," said Glover, who sees parallels in early hip-hop to the way Curtis Mayfield's tracks like "People Get Ready" augured the era of social change in the '60s. "This isn't to diminish the talented voices out here now, but most of what you hear now is simply narcissism and nihilism." He said that he sees the culture of resistance alive today in the spoken-word scene, and he rues its lack of exposure.
Olsson augmented his vintage footage by interviewing several key contemporary musicians and academics such as Erykah Badu, John Forte, Questlove, Talib Kweli, Sonia Sanchez and Robin Kelley. "Sometimes if you are too reliant on archival footage, the movie becomes claustrophobic," Olsson said. "Adding the current voices is like bringing oxygen to the container."
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.