I was blown away by the documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (read my review), which came to New York City for MoMA’s New Directors New Films festival this spring. The film has some stunning archival footage of black America from that era, complemented by a groovy, languid pace and a hip, new musical score. It’s a look back at the black power movement through the eyes of Swedish documentarians. How weird and cool is that?
The film will be available on video-on-demand starting Wednesday (September 14, 2011) after it opens in theaters in New York City on Friday (September 9, 2011). I encourage anyone who’s feeling rudderless during the 9/11 weekend to check it out. I say this because, on the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, I think we are all mindful of the strange course of history and the passage of time. Big things happen — terrorist attacks, civil rights movements — and the world doesn’t remain the same, but, as individuals, how are we changed? Seeing Mixtape is a very vivid reminder of that question. Also, as a native New Yorker, I just like seeing the images of a New York before the attacks.
I spoke to Göran Hugo Olsson, the Swedish director of Black Power Mixtape, last spring. At the time, I thought about how Sweden is best known for IKEA and ABBA, with few hints of discord. In the interim, his corner of the world was shaken by the terrible Norway terrorist attacks. Who could have seen that coming? As they say, history is happening to us every day. I include below some of my previously unpublished dialogue with Olsson.
Doc Soup Man: The film just looks so good. Did you achieve that through some form of restoration?
Göran Hugo Olsson, director of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975: We got a hold of, in some cases, the camera originals. But aside from being close to the source, we did not do any restoration or cleaning. As a matter of fact, the images look better now than when first broadcast.
Doc Soup Man: I imagine some of your interviewees were initially wary about the voyeuristic or fetishistic potential of your project. How did you convince them otherwise?
Olsson: I had no problem convincing the interviewees about participating. All people, from Bobby Seale and Angela Davis to Erykah Badu were generous and forthcoming. The Swedish perspective allowed us more clichéd images than otherwise, because that’s how America was perceived at the time. The film contains arial footage of the Statue of Liberty as well as images of kids playing with a broken fire hydrant in Harlem. White Americans might think of that as a cliché, but the people I have met from Harlem regard them as just beautiful images of kids playing.
Doc Soup Man: Ultimately, did you feel that some of your interviewees were more open to speak with you because you’re a foreigner?
Olsson: All my interviewees spoke to me differently being a foreigner. I’ve been making documentaries on four continents, and people are always more open and generous to people from a remote place. If you are a Swede, knocking on the door of the Black Panther Party, coming from an “Eskimo country” like ours, how could one say no?
Doc Soup Man: If an American filmmaker wanted to take on a similar project as yours, what segment of Swedish history, culture or society would you suggest he or she examine?
Olsson: One should not forget, as Swedes, we grew up with American culture, American history — and under the influence of American business and media. The American people, for natural reasons, have less knowledge of Swedish history and politics. Several foreign films have been made about Sweden. The focus is on trying to break the myth of Sweden as a demarcating heaven with welfare for all and free sex.
Doc Soup Man: Please talk a little about what you think is one of the most enlightening moments in the film.
Olsson: I think it’s very interesting, especially given what’s happened in northern Africa recently, the relation between nonviolence and something else. As (hip-hop artist) Talib Kweli points out in the film: Now we see that Dr. King and Gandhi’s methods work, but it would never have worked without people like (civil rights activist) Stokely Carmichael on the other side. I see this in the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Non-violence has an utter border. If the power strikes back on the people with violence, the crowd changes methods. This dynamic is very interesting. And of course the killing of Dr. King changed America forever.
Doc Soup Man: To me, the film is open ended about what all this means about race in America today, but, if anything, I’d say it’s positive, indicating that these earlier struggles led to something much better. Do you think that’s fair to say? I know some would call this naïve, pointing to vast differences in wealth, etc.
Olsson: This movement changed American society and the world for the better. Yesterday I was visiting the site for the opening scene in the film, Hallandale (near Miami, Florida). In 1972 there were absolutely no black people on that beach. Yesterday it was totally mixed, with Afro-American families enjoying the sea and sand as everyone else. The Black Power movement was a blueprint to other movements of liberation, not only ethnic but also second-wave feminism, and the gay liberation movement. But the impact of the Black Power Movement also has had an impact on a more personal level. Everyone knows now that you can’t sit and wait for someone to come around to give you your rights. You have to stand up for your rights. And if that is not enough, you have to fight for rights. And that counts for everyone, even a white middle-age aged Swede like myself.