Swede sweetback’s baadassss song: The Black Power Mixtape ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 1, 2011)

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Diana: Hi, I’m Diana Christensen, a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.

Laureen: I’m Laureen Hobbs, a badass commie nigger.

Diana: Sounds like the basis of a firm friendship.

 –from Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky

The slyly subversive sociopolitical subtext of that memorable exchange between Faye Dunaway and Marlene Warfield in Sidney Lumet’s classic 1976 satire could be lost on anyone not old enough to recall the radical politics and revolutionary rhetoric of the era, but for those of us who are (and who do), the character of “Laureen Hobbs” was clearly inspired by Angela Davis, the UCLA professor-turned activist whose name became synonymous with the Black Power movement of the late 60s to mid 70s.

Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s distillation of the two characters into winking cultural stereotypes, while wryly satirical, was not  far off the mark as to how the MSM spun the image of Davis and other prominent figures like Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale. As I recall, the media tended to focus on the more extreme, sensationalist facets. Police shootouts with Black Panthers, prison riots and U.S. athletes giving the Black Power salute at the Olympic Games made for good copy, but didn’t paint the entire picture of the Black Experience in America.

With the alternative press (and most likely the FBI) excepted, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of investigative parsing going on at the time to unearth the root cause and/or ideology behind the images of violence and civil unrest that the MSM played on a continuous loop. After all, this was, at its core, a legitimate and historically significant American political movement (if not a revolution), and no one seemed to be taking the pains to document it. At least, no one in this country. Sweden, on the other hand? They had it covered.

I know…Sweden. Go figure. At any rate, a treasure trove of vintage 16mm footage, representing nearly a decade of candid interviews with movement leaders and meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities and African-American inner city life was recently discovered tucked away in the basement of Swedish Television. Director Goran Olsson has cherry-picked fascinating clips and assembled them in a chronological historical order for his documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Olsson leaves the contextualization to present-day retrospection from surviving participants (Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver and Harry Belafonte), as well as reflections by contemporary African-American academics, writers, poets and musicians. The director restricts modern commentators to voice-over, thereby devoting maximum screen time to the pristine archive footage. And if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving bad-ass commie, uh, interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric, dispense with that hoary stereotype now.

What you will see is a relaxed and soft-spoken Stokely Carmichael, surprising his interviewers by borrowing the mike to ask his own mother questions about her life experience as an African-American woman in America. There are interviews with a jailed Angela Davis, an exiled Eldridge Cleaver (in Algiers), Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton and others; and what really comes through is the humanity behind the rhetoric. Whether one agrees or disagrees with all the means and methods they utilized to get their views across to the powers-that-be, the underlying message is self-empowerment, and a forward-thinking commitment to changing the world for the better.

Speaking of the “powers-that-be”, there are interesting segments on the state response to the movement at the time (infiltration and entrapment, turning a blind eye to civil liberties, etc.) that beg comparisons to our post 9-11 environment (plus ca change…). In fact, the subject of Olsson’s film feels trapped by its 100 minute time constraint; there’s more than enough angles to this largely neglected part of 20th-century American history to provide ample material for a Ken Burns-length miniseries. Olsson weaves social context into the mix by using clips from a 1973 Swedish TV cinema-verite documentary called Harlem: Voices, Faces, a time capsule that lends a sense of poetry to an otherwise straightforward collage

The film is not without flaws; some of the contemporary commentators don’t necessarily lend new insight. Also, Olssons’s commitment to offering viewers a “mix, not a remix” feels unfocused at times (“subjective” doesn’t have to mean “dry”). Still, a film like this is important, because the time is ripe to re-examine the story of the Black Power movement, which despite its failures and flaws, still emerges as one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings that we’ve had in this country (no, the Tea Party shares no parallels, by any stretch of the imagination).

Watching the film made me a little sad. Where is the real passion (and social compassion) in American politics anymore? It’s become all about petty partisanship and myopic self-interest and next to nothing about empowering citizens and maintaining a truly free and equal society. However (to end on an up note), I came across this rousing speech, recently delivered on the  40th anniversary of the Attica prison riot. It gave me hope that the legacy is alive:

Amen, brother.

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