I started my schooling at an Afro-centric elementary school in Boston and finished by earning a bachelor’s degree at Howard University. While I am no black history expert, I have a spent a fair amount learning about the usual facts and figures presented about African-American history makers. While grainy pictures of Martin Luther King Jr’s march on Washington, Marion Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial and Harriet Tubman posing for the camera are all powerful and important images, we as a nation have come to rely on them too much as a short cut to quickly cover some of the more poignant and painful aspects of our past. Their over usage often make my eyes glass over.
How refreshing to watch the documentary “The Black Power Mixtape 1967 - 1975,” which takes a look that the civil rights movement from the eyes of a group of Swedish news journalists. Seems random. I could belabor the strangeness of such eye-opening material on my community coming from Sweden, but that doesn’t really matter. Nor is the exact reason why these journalists descended on America pertinent. What is important is that they were touched by the inequities of the everyday lives of everyday Americans; that they documented it; and shared it. During the course of almost 10 years, they covered the marches, speeches, and court trials of civil rights activists in order to shed light on the plight and successes of the black community.
I was amazed at the amount of footage that I had never seen of some civil rights icons. The clips of Stokley Carmichael interviewing his mother introduced me to the softer side of his humanity and helped round him out as a person. From her jail cell, Angela Davis bristles when a reporter asks her about the use of violence in a freedom movement when violence was used to kill her neighbors, the girls that were fire bombed in Birmingham, Alabama. “You ask me if I approve of violence? I just find it incredible.” I can see her frustration from years of struggle tempered with a fierce intellect as she tries to explain basic human behavior. The footage of Black Panther leaders, schools and soup kitchens; Herbert Hoover quotes; the backlash of the American media all brought home the civil rights era from a fresh perspective that made me sit up and take notice.
The approach of the production of “The Black Power Mixtape” was also refreshing. Instead of traditional narration, the directors use audio interviews from today’s well-know voices of black consciousness to give context to the images on the screen. Sometimes the interviews were directly about the video presented but there were also commentaries and remembrances. Erika Badu, Angela Davis, QwestLove and Harry Belafonte did not recite from history books but recounted the history from very personal and very thoughtful perspectives. Talib Kweli says “What you don’t realize about these people is that none of these people are evil or bad or even extra violent. It’s just to them common sense meant that they had to speak and stand up for themselves. And it shows you the power of those words – that they resonate even today.”
“The Black Power Mixtape” brought out the strength and pride of the black community during those turbulent times. If it had been a fictional tale, it would have ended with all Americans moving forward together to create a better nation and a better world. Instead it ended with drugs thrust into black communities, with families being disrupted and dreams being squashed. And it also left us with the unasked question, what do we do now?