“Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975,” a documentary in English and Swedish with English subtitles, directed by Göran Olsson and co-produced by Danny Glover.
“Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975” is a powerful documentary film, an unprecedented account of a significant era in the U.S. covering assassinations, riots, and the rise of the Black Power movement against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Swedish filmmakers had visited the U.S. to document the status of Blacks after hearing of the unrest and revolt in the country. The print languished in a basement of Swedish television for 30 years and has just now been released. Directed by Göran Olsson with political activist Danny Glover as co-producer, “Black Power” conveys historical footage in a fresh, contemporary manner.
The footage contained in those eight years of filming is a wealth of images, music, narration as well as recent, added-in commentary by prominent African American artists and activists such as singer Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, Melvin Van Peebles, and musician Talib Kweli.
By the filmmakers’ own admission, the film does not tell the whole story. But it gives an intimate view to the struggle by interviewing not only noted personalities from those years, but also Black small-business owners in the South who appear content serving their community, a customer in a coffee shop, and Black Vietnam vets who complained understandably that they fought over there and risked their lives—and when they returned the U.S gave them nothing. The gritty, grainy, black and white film makes the raw poverty of the inner city life that much more believable in a wrenching scene of a poor Black woman in a one room apartment getting her six children ready for school.
In 1967, the filmmakers focused on Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), who highlighted the term “Black Power,” a term that scared whites as well as some Black leaders; at one point, Martin Luther King called it an “unfortunate choice of words.” They filmed Carmichael giving speeches in which he said that Martin Luther King, Jr. was too soft. Later, he changed his mind when he admitted that the bus boycott worked. There is a clip in which Carmichael interviews his mother, who said that it was accepted that in slow economic times, Blacks were let go, no matter how much work seniority they had. His father, a carpenter, was currently laid off, she said, because he was “colored.”
Carmichael was filmed in his front room with some musician friends. He was burning something in an ashtray. He said that he was burning the FBI and added that he wanted the FBI to “burn, baby, burn.” That phrase was first used by DJ Magnificent Montague in Los Angeles on KGFJ, and earlier in New York on WWRL. It had nothing to do with riots or fire damage, but passion for a piece of music he liked. However, it went on to serve as a rallying cry of Blacks during the devastating riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and other cities, from 1965 on. Footage of the riots shows cops and National Guardsmen beating people with batons, fire-hosing, and unleashing dogs on unarmed civilians. Kweli, in a post-production interview for the film, had been detained by the FBI at an airport in 2001 after 9/11, because he used the “burn, baby, burn” phrase in his music in the ’60s. He couldn’t believe the FBI was still listening to it 40 years after the fact.
The film shows clips of Black Panther Party members, armed and uniformed in black leather jackets and berets. Panther leaders tell filmmakers that they carried weapons to defend themselves, their neighborhoods, against police brutality. Interviews in the film were of Black men, women, and children availing themselves of the social programs started by the BPP—free breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, as well as clothing, books, and school supplies.
Sensing an organized threat to America, the FBI wasted no time in rounding up Panther members, arresting them and throwing them in prison. In a voice-over, the narrator states that FBI head J. Edgar Hoover contended that the free breakfast program was the most dangerous activity of the time. There is footage of Hoover instituting COINTELPRO with the aim of infiltrating the Panthers and other radical groups, effectively turning their members against each other. COINTELPRO contributed to the murder in cold blood of Fred Hampton, the deputy chairman of the Illinois Panther chapter, by the Chicago Police Department.
The film includes footage of and interviews with Angela Davis (her hair in a gorgeous “natural,” i.e. Afro), a member of the Communist Party and an associate of the Black Panther Party. She was the third woman in history to make the FBI’s Most Wanted List. She’d been in Europe during the church bombing by racists in Birmingham; having been born in Birmingham, she knew and had grown up with the girls who were murdered. The filmmakers included clips of her speaking at rallies with BPP members against racism and violence towards Blacks.
One young Black man tells an interviewer that none of the shops in Harlem are owned or run by Blacks and that Blacks can’t get anywhere because they have no work. So they can’t save enough money to open a business or buy a home and are at the mercy of white landlords.
Musician Talib Kweli, in an interview by Olsson, says that the government brought drugs into the Black communities to stifle any opposition to government controls, and that Blacks went to Vietnam and came back hooked on heroin. We are shown unsettling clips of people shooting up, nodding off on the street, and cops and ambulance drivers bringing in the bodies of teenagers who had OD’d.
Today, Black people are not much better off than they were 40 years ago, with Black unemployment at 17%, the highest since 1984, while white unemployment is a steady 8%. Black men are the majority of the prison population (35%); also, besides Hispanics, their foreclosure rates are the highest in the country.
With the release of this film, the eyes of many might be opened. Hopefully, they will soon join the rallies for an end to ongoing police brutality, murder, and imprisoning of Black people—and join in raising demands for social programs that can speak to the needs of Black youths, the poor and disfranchised.
Some people hoped that a Black president would turn the plight of the poor and disenfranchised around, regardless of color. But predictably, as have all U.S. presidents, Obama has sided with the oppressors. Stokely Carmichael had written in his 1967 book, “Black Power” (with co-writer Charles Hamilton): “It is a call for black people in this country to unite to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.” Today, there is still a need to build Black political organizations independent of the Democratic (and Republican) parties.
> The article above was written by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith and first appeared in the November 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.