Sundance 2011: 'The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75' brings the past into today
Sweden might seem an unlikely place to uncover a treasure trove of archival material about the American Black Power movement of the 1960s and '70s, but journalists from that country actually compiled an extensive library of film footage of African American activists from that era. Director Goran Hugo Olsson's "Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975," which had its world premiere this week as part of the Sundance Film Festival's World Cinema Documentary section, charts a movement from inspiration and activism to disillusionment and inertia.
The footage includes clips of Stokely Carmichael's whirlwind speaking tour of Europe; Carmichael playfully taking over for a reporter to interview his own mother; the Black Panthers' headquarters in Oakland; and a riveting, passionate interview with Angela Davis conducted while she was in prison.
The challenge for the director was how to give some shape to footage collected over a wide span of time from various news reports. "It's a mixtape," Olsson said at a screening Tuesday, "but we tried to keep a storyline."
In perhaps his boldest move, Olsson has his interview subjects (including Davis, Harry Belafonte, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, Talib Kweli and scholar Robin Kelley) talk over the vintage images -- musician Erykah Badu at one point even breaks into song. After the screening, Olsson said he was inspired by DVD commentary tracks.
The tactic brings the images from the past into the present, giving a sense that they still hold the power to engage. The film is in some ways a reminder of the importance of historical records and the vibrancy of archival film, as no photograph or written article could quite convey the real sense of time and place that these moving images do.
During an especially lively Q&A after the movie screened, Olsson was peppered with questions about certain choices, such as why he did not include any contemporary African American activists among his voices, opting instead for entertainers and performers. Olsson said he sought to include performers who would attract a younger audience and engage with the footage emotionally. He also rather humbly admitted he did not know any contemporary activists and might have included them if he did, adding with just a hint of irony, "Yes, you are right and I feel ashamed."
Olsson said his main impulse for making the film came after he saw a piece of footage of Carmichael speaking about Martin Luther King Jr. and the meaning of nonviolent resistance. He realized, he said, "this is not archive footage; this is something really important to bring out." He said he hoped the film would "bring these images from Sweden, from the past" into the present.
-- Mark Olsen in Park City, Utah
Photo of Stokely Carmichael from "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975." Credit: Sundance Film Festival