Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (February 9th. and 10th at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-1975 screens February 9th at 6:45 pm and February 10th at 9:15 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.

I could make a remark about the late Don Cornelius here and attempt in all sincerity to be reflective and respectful about the late TV MC and everyone would still think I was a white devil making a joke. So let’s just leave it at this, that while “Soul Train” was going on there was another drama being played out that is captured in most urgent fashion by this "documentary in 9 chapters." It covers eight critical years (plus a prelude) on the black civil-rights struggle in the United States, as the crisis sharpened into a militant/revolutionary stance. Yes, while the hippies and yippies were marching against the System, or more precisely, the possibility their own lily-white selves might be sent to Vietnam (hence, when that danger died down their activism subsided proportionately, and anyway there were sooo many Grateful Dead concerts to follow around, maaaan!), black America had a slightly more committed POV. As far as they were concerned, they were already living behind Enemy Lines.

This necessarily fragmented feature thus follows the arc of Afro-American militancy, from the final years of Dr. Martin Luther King – and the concurrent rise of Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panther Party that so terrified Washington D.C. - to Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Say, wasn’t that, like, episodes 14-15 of “Eyes on the Prize” on PBS? Maybe, but the real twist here is the origin of this material - Swedish TV, and thus, not overtly polarized like so much of the era's US media.

The `neutral' Swedish reporters seem to bring no agenda or preconceptions. Either that or their utter foreign-ness (forget their pale skin and blue eyes) put many interviewees - Carmichael, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale – into a less guarded, more accessible mood with the Scandi reporters than they would have been with white-establishment American counterparts. So most of the material gleaned here from the archives has never been seen before in this country. A lot is revelatory indeed, like a soft-spoken Carmichael making frightening sense about the shortfalls of non-violent protest. Easygoing, humorous and conversational, he's far from the fiery radical-boogeyman image often fixed to the Black Panther party.

Other segments in the year-by-year chronicle include Swedish coverage of the Attica prison uprising and its brutal outcome, with attorney William Kuntsler especially prominent, and the repeated trials of unapologetically revolutionary Angela Davis. And, in a slightly off-topic but still relevant sidebar, we hear from gadfly filmmaker Emile d’Antonio (for you young kids, he was like a Michael Moore before there was a Michael Moore, though less often comedic) discussing a TV Guide article – this was back when the digest-sized entertainment publication was America’s top-read weekly, a scary thought – attacking the foreign broadcast journalists, especially the Swedes, for reporting critically on US affairs (especially race) without due respect for the fact that ours is the Greatest Country in the World. D’Antonio outs the article’s author, Walter Annenberg, as a Nixon flunky and propagandist. Farrakhan’s appearance at the end is good news if you think he represents a dude who never sold out to the Man’s power structure, bad news if you think he comes across as an alienating fringe character and cult-leader, the opposite of the unifying type that this movement needed.

Though it states up front this is not a complete chronicle of the Black Power movement (rather, a "mixtape"), I was a little disappointed that the editing choices kind of support the conspiracy-thinking mindset I hear every so often, that the Black Panthers and the black-liberation movement were quenched by a vast, CIA-authorized drug epidemic that ravaged the minority enclaves. Sorry, but there are documents on file that explain in lucid detail how the FBI effectively splintered and quashed the Panther leadership, via whisper and slander campaigns, forged poison-pen letters, anonymous calls and other, far more cost-effective means at fostering paranoia and feuds. It’s a part of J. Edgar Hoover’s ops largely left out of Clint Eastwood’s recent biopic of the legendary fed.

Though the “mixtape” doesn’t annotate itself with such details, there are voiceovers from modern-day commentators, adding their hindsight-reaction to archival footage. I had a problem with that too, insofar as the voices are predominantly progressive-to-left activist-entertainers (Harry Belafonte, Erykah Badu, etc.), sort of the usual suspects. I would rather have liked to have heard from a broader cast of black academics, politicians and opinion-leaders. Come on, Eric Dyson, we know you’re not media-shy! Even Herman Cain and Alan Keys, invite them to the party (a certain Obama's opinion would have been most interesting indeed, but that will have to wait for a non-election-year anniversary edition). Even with those misgivings, this is one vivid, troubling documentary and a true time machine for Black History Month. (3 ½ out of 4 stars)

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