The year is 1967: The Who plays their first concert in the United States; The Beatles release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; the first issue of Rolling Stone rolls off the presses. The free love movement is hitting its stride, and anti-Vietnam protests reach fever pitch. These images and moments define the era for many.
But 1967 was also a keystone year in the effort of African-Americans to gain fair and equal treatment in the country that consistently excluded them from these foundational ideas.
In March of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march against the Vietnam War in Chicago, kicking off what would be the final full year of his life. While the minister’s influence remained strong, a more aggressive philosophy was beginning to manifest in the movement.
Those who gravitated towards the teachings of Malcolm X, assassinated in 1965, saw in Black nationalism the solution to their marginalization. Nonviolence was on the wane. Black Power would soon replace integration as the marching call.
Stokely Carmichael, who coined the term Black Power, was a major catalyst for this transition. As he saw it, the mistake King made was to assume displaying the suffering of their community would encourage empathy from the powers that were in white America. King’s
mistake was to assume this establishment had a conscience.
In 1967, Carmichael published his book, Black Power, became the Honorary Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party, and became the figurehead of the rising movement. It’s no surprise, then, that this is where The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 begins.
The March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech have been more than detailed; the struggles that followed remain underexplored. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is built on footage gathered by Swedish filmmakers during the era, of which very little ended up being used until now. The distance this provides is fascinating. The style and narration of the original footage seems almost ethnographic, as if the Swedes, enamoured with the leftist leanings of the movement, were also unexpectedly documenting a culture foreign even within its own country.
This distance is amplified by contemporary commentary from prominent African-Americans: Erykah Badu, The Roots’ Questlove, and Harry Belafonte, to name a few. The contrast between these voice-overs and those of the original filmmakers parallels that between the perception of the movement from within and from without. We watch Angela Davis chastise an interviewer for speaking of violent Black nationalism like it was unprovoked, then hear Talib Kweli’s account of how this inspired, and continues to inspire, a refusal to be tread on and an unshakable confidence. Running over all of this is a modern soundtrack from Questlove and Om’Mas Keith, providing a rhythm to tie the patchwork footage together.
The film doesn’t shy away from radical imagery: scenes in which school children sing “pick up the gun and put the pigs on the run” and sections showing the effects of drugs in the community, the introduction of which the film not-so-coyly suggests was the fault of the FBI. These types of polemics do not seem propagandistic, however, because though The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 condemns the America it depicts, it refuses to glorify radicalism. Rather, they argue it was a grave necessity, and one not explained often enough.
There’s a kind of selective memory that pervades depictions of the American civil rights movement. Regardless of whether it’s conscious, some of the more radical forces that spurred
meaningful change are marginalized or glossed over. The clearest example of this is the Black Power movement which, due to the cursory coverage it tends to get, is known of but often misunderstood. Equality didn’t just appear after King’s speech in Washington; it took many more years of struggle. Some of this was violent; The Black Power Mixtape shows why.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is showing on Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. in H-110. Visit www.cinemapolitica.org/concordia for more information.