Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Black Power Mixtape 1967 - 1975

Kathleen Cleaver

Martin Luther King Jr. (left) and activist Harry Belafonte

Stokely Carmichael

Stokely Carmichael interviewing his mother Mabel Carmichael at her home in the Bronx, 1967

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale

Angela Davis prison interview

Angela Davis giving a speech, 1974

Angela Davis on the cover of Time magazine, 1971

Angela Davis (left) with Jane Fonda (right)in 1971 during a demonstration against the war in Vietnam in Los Angeles, California

Swedish director Göran Olsson

THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967 – 1975                  B+      
Sweden  USA  (100 mi)  2011  d: Göran Olsson

We wanted to understand and portray America – through sound and image – as it really is.  However, there are about as many opinions on that as there are Americans.

A subject rarely examined in film, including an independent film about a wayward former Black Panther in Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us (2010) or mainstream documentary overviews in Shola Lynch’s FREE ANGELA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS (2012) or Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015), yet this offers a completely different perspective that feels as relevant as ever, offering the rare opportunity to examine America’s racial crisis in the 60’s from an outsider’s perspective, something more along the lines of Agnès Varda’s documentary short film BLACK PANTHERS (1968), yet extended over time.  With 16mm found footage from the 60’s and 70’s discovered in the cellar of the Swedish National Broadcasting Company where it had been sitting for 30 years, compiled by a group of 14 Swedish documentarists for Swedish television who received surprising access, edited and reinvisioned by documentary filmmaker Göran Olsson, adding updated commentary of unseen modern voices, mostly black musicians, who add their own personal perspective as well as a contemporary musical soundtrack.  The results are somewhat erratic, with no real analysis, no acknowledgement of sexism within the movement, yet still mandatory viewing, stunningly powerful, with some material standing out more than others, including the Swedish commentary subtitled into English, never delving deeply enough into any one particular subject, where any number of historical figures are barely mentioned at all or receive short shrift.  Yet some of what’s discovered is emotionally raw and uniquely impactive, becoming a mixed bag, exactly as the title suggests, with various scenes strung together, offering an overall glimpse of an extremely controversial subject, yet so much press has been spent undermining the significance of the movement, fueled by the racist paranoia of then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover who used “any means necessary” (to coin a Black Panther phrase) to infiltrate, spread falsehoods and destroy the movement.  This film, much like the history books, barely touches on this issue, as the FBI files were so secretive, yet their intent is clear through the FBI COINTELPRO program, a covert counterintelligence operation that initially discredited communist activities in the 50’s, but expanded in the 60’s to include nearly every major black figure, including Malcolm X and Rev. Martin Luther King, both of whom were assassinated under mysterious circumstances, yet both are viewed as trailblazers of the times, with Hoover describing Dr. King as “the most dangerous man in America.”  With the FBI scrutinizing Dr. King’s tax returns, monitoring his sexual and financial affairs, even trying to establish that he had a secret foreign bank account, they “leaked” unfavorable material to the press while the FBI planted listening devices in their home and various hotel rooms, tapped their phones, wrote fake letters and initiated false allegations, anything to sabotage his reputation.  The irony is that Dr. King was a religious figure, a minister, a man of peace, hardly a radicalized threat, yet his reputation was continually undermined and besmirched by a perpetual stream of lies, while the Black Power movement was a more radical offshoot from the pacifist Civil Rights movement, refusing to turn the other cheek and suffer the abuses of King’s followers.  The term “Black Power” is attributed to Stokely Carmichael, also known as Kwame Ture after 1969, who participated in the Freedom Rides in the early 60’s before becoming a full-time organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), eventually becoming the Chairperson when John Lewis was elected to Congress, working side-by-side with Dr. King, finally persuading King to use the term at the end of a long two-week march to Selma, Alabama.  The term actually originates in Richard Wright’s 1954 book Black Power, used by New York politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr. on May 29, 1966 during an address at Howard University: “To demand these God-given rights is to seek black power.”  Yet it was Carmichael who popularized the phrase just weeks later in a June 16, 1966 speech in Greenwood, Mississippi after the sniper shooting of James Meredith during the Mississippi Delta March Against Fear:

This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested and I ain’t going to jail no more!  The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over.  What we gonna start sayin’ now is Black Power!

The term quickly caught on, used widely in the black community, where Civil Rights laws transformed the way racial discrimination could be handled in the courts, but “Black Power” spoke to one’s identity, turning what was previously viewed as a negative into a positive, as the term exudes a sense of confidence and strength, culminating in a newfound pride in being black, never more publicly posturized than the James Brown megahit in the summer of 1968, Say it Loud- I'm Black and Proud James Brown - YouTube (3:01).  While there is footage of the Attica Prison riot, attorney William Kunstler argued negotiations were progressing for a peaceful settlement, yet Governor Nelson Rockefeller instead ordered a bloody assault using shotguns that killed 29 inmates and all 10 guards held as hostages, winning President Nixon’s hearty approval, quickly shifting the emphasis to a “black” uprising, overlooking the openly racist pummelings of black prisoners by white prison guards, using their batons, which they preferred to call “nigger sticks,” which only increased afterwards in even greater numbers.  Some of the earliest footage shows the original Oakland, California headquarters of the Black Panther Party, a completely unpretentious dwelling where people gathered to initiate their programs, including the Free Breakfast Program For Children, a radical idea that is now practiced in schools all across the nation, providing needed nourishment to those children most in need, for some the only nutritious meal of the day, yet the FBI’s ludicrous response was to label the program “The most dangerous threat to the USA.”  While there is some footage of Panther leaders Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale making speeches overseas in Europe, there is scant footage of Black Panther speeches or rallies, no reference whatsoever to The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971), killed in a police raid in Chicago, or Bobby Hutton who was shot while surrendering in Oakland, while many more are still in prison (Mumia Abu-Jamal) or exile (Assata Shakur), though we do see Huey Newton’s release from prison after charges against him for murdering a white police officer were dropped after spending nearly three years incarcerated.  Much happened during the interim, as the Black Panther Party exhausted all of their money in defense of arrested members, which became an ongoing ordeal when nearly every male member was either arrested or killed by police in a consolidated police effort to wipe them out completely, with Eldridge Cleaver and his wife Kathleen seeking refuge in Algeria, Huey Newton exiled to Cuba, leaving it to the women to hold down the fort until the money simply ran out.  The film offers a sad commentary on what happened in the 70’s as first heroin and then crack cocaine flooded black communities, creating a regular stream of overdoses and fatalities, where there is a train of thought that the government was behind this, which isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem, as they had access to large quantities of drugs, the money and power to distribute, and a longstanding motive to decimate the black community, as drugs ravaged those communities in the 70’s, effectively eliminating whatever liberating solidarity may have existed.  Even Stokely Carmichael eventually sought refuge in Guinea, rejecting the Black Panther Party for collaborating with whites and not being separatist enough, becoming an aide to their president, a student of their exiled former president Kwame Nkrumah, an advocate of pan-Africanism.  Yet Carmichael is seen with his mother in her Bronx home patiently interviewing her about his father, repeatedly asking why they were so poor and why he was continually out of work, where initially she politely resists, finally getting her to acknowledge that it was due to his race, so he was always the first one let go.  That is the essence of racial discrimination.  While there is a surreal busride of Swedish tourists riding through Harlem with positively bizarre commentary, one of the more exemplary interviews offers little hype or fanfare, exposing the interior world of a teenage prostitute who speaks about her life in a matter-of-fact manner, offering heartbreaking and devastating commentary about income inequality, giving voice to the voiceless, expressing how the other half lives in a country that proudly calls itself the richest nation on earth.  This is not a one-time only film, as Olsson also made a poetic, thought-provoking visual essay entitled CONCERNING VIOLENCE (2014), also premiering at Sundance, another documentary set to Lauryn Hill’s reading the text of Franz Fanon’s landmark work The Wretched of the Earth, an astute analysis of the psychological effects of the dehumanization of colonialism, both films told in 9 chapters, examining earlier footage of violent encounters during third world liberation struggles in Africa during the 60’s and 70’s.    

The Black Power movement is rooted in outrageous acts of unmitigated white violence and vile race hatred continually directed towards blacks now for centuries, leaving a traumatic path of destruction and emotional devastation in its wake, where at some point enough is enough, with Black Power leaders identifying and pointing out the most scurrilous violators of human atrocities, literally calling them out and demanding change.  With racism so entrenched in the fabric of American society, poisoning the waters of normal discourse, what appalls black communities barely registers in white neighborhoods, out of sight, out of mind, as there has been no accountability from the continual assault to black life, literally a tale of two Americas, where black and white are two entirely different and separate realities.  The Black Lives Matter protest movement of today has picked up on the theme that throughout American history, black lives haven’t mattered, and change won’t come until they do, receiving the same protective community policing as whites, basically the demilitarization of police, equal justice for the same crimes as whites, and access to the same resources and opportunities.  The real message here is that until the violence of racism subsides, no one is really safe.  Today, police routinely treat blacks differently than whites, targeted, killed and brutally mistreated more frequently, constantly viewed as a threat, where the Fraternal Order of Police has labeled Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization, just as the Black Panthers were perceived half a century ago by the same white law enforcement establishment.  It seems so little has been learned in the passage of time from the 60’s until now, as history is simply repeating itself.  Easily the most incendiary footage is a 1972 prison interview that takes place between an unnamed Swedish reporter and lifelong socialist and black activist Angela Davis, one of the most educated black women in America, who had been fired by Governor Ronald Reagan (still fighting the 50’s fight of McCarthyism) from her job teaching philosophy at UCLA because of her affiliation with the Communist Party, now awaiting trial on what is perceived as trumped-up murder charges, as guns that she legally purchased were involved in a Wild West courtroom shootout (Marin County Civic Center attacks) leaving the perpetrator and the presiding judge killed along with two others, while another (who provided testimony at the trial) was left paralyzed.  Davis fled the scene and became a fugitive, placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, eventually tracked down in New York, with President Nixon congratulating them on their “capture of the dangerous terrorist Angela Davis.”  However, all charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence, as Angela Davis is no terrorist, as she’s a professor and liberating free-thinker.  But during this interview, she is asked why so much violence is associated with the Black Power Movement?  Her answer is startling in its personal sincerity, offering a testimonial on what it means to be black in America, growing up in Bull Connor’s Birmingham, Alabama where his radio comments sparked KKK vigilante violence against black communities, where she was neighbors with one of the girls killed by a Ku Klux Klan dynamite blast in a church depicted in Spike Lee’s 4 LITTLE GIRLS (1997), “I remember our house shaking,” where her father and others armed themselves and patrolled the streets to keep their families safe.  Each carefully chosen word is spoken with a suppressed inner rage, yet she speaks calmly and eloquently with a raw power that reverberates long afterwards, Angela Davis – YouTube (8:44).  “And you ask me about violence?!”  This moving sequence is the heart and soul of the film, the picture of inner resolve and strength.  The other remarkable aspect is the astute personal commentary of American historian Robin Kelly, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets, the poet Sonia Sanchez, and the musicians Om’Mas Keith, Erykah Badu, John Forté, Talib Kweli and Questlove.  What’s remarkable about these choices is how the political landscape has shifted from the radical hard core community activists to rappers and performers in the music industry who today inspire cultural change.  It was a remarkable decision to choose these contemporary figures without ever showing their faces, who so easily identify with these transforming historical moments, becoming a conversation linking the past and the present.  This film premiered at Sundance in 2011, inspiring immediate acclaim for its wealth of historical footage, where foreigners were allowed astonishing access that Americans might not otherwise obtain, providing a universality about the material, as racism doesn’t only exist in Oakland or America, but in all corners of the globe.  This film offers insight into how to develop empathy and fully understand someone else’s plight, which in itself is a major lesson in how to apply history, as it’s not always as the history books suggest.  Often oral histories contain much more observational truth, as these experiences are personalized, having been lived through and evaluated, offering a subjective truth that has an objective reality about it.  For all practical purposes, that’s the essence of poetry. 

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