Black Power Mixtape shows rebels in a new light
The Telegraph, 15 Oct 2011
With the release of the documentary Black Power Mixtape, interest in the Black Panthers is greater now than at any time since the 60s
Forty years ago, the Black Panther Party was the most reviled and feared political organisation in the United States. Party members took part in dozens of shoot‑outs with the police, leading to injuries and deaths on both sides. Hundreds of Panthers were on trial or in jail for crimes including murder, extortion and drug racketeering. J Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, declared them “without question, the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”.
Riven by internal conflict, the party fell apart in the late Seventies, officially closing in 1982. But in the decades since, a remarkable turnaround has taken place in perceptions of the organisation to the extent that today, cultural and critical interest in their image and beliefs has rarely been higher.
Next week a new documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, opens. The film is composed of archive 16mm footage originally shot by Swedish television journalists who travelled to the US in the late Sixties with the intention of “showing the country as it really is”. Director Goran Hugo Olsson came across the material in the cellars of a Swedish television station and spent years knitting it together into a 100-minute movie.
As the title suggests, the result is a collage. The film charts the changing fortunes of the party and its most prominent figures, including Huey P Newton, Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis. It marries speeches, news clips, interviews and music from the era with commentary from a range of insightful figures who are heard over the footage, but not seen. Some of the voices were there at the time, such as Harry Belafonte and Abiodun Oyewole of the spoken word group The Last Poets. Others add a contemporary perspective, such as the singer Erykah Badu and Ahmir “Questlove” Thomson of the rap group The Roots.
The movie is only one of a recent set of attempts to make sense of the black power movement. The highly regarded art centre Nottingham Contemporary recently ran an exhibition about the French radical poet Jean Genet that focused heavily on Genet’s relationship with the Panthers. A passionate supporter of the party, Genet was invited to the US by them in 1970 and spoke and wrote extensively on their behalf while he was there. And last month Emory Douglas, the party’s former Minister of Culture, visited Britain to deliver several public lectures.
Although less well known than the likes of Davis and Carmichael, Douglas was a gifted graphic artist who borrowed widely, from religious iconography to Cuban revolutionary posters, to create a heroic popular identity for the Panthers.
Indeed, given the compelling nature of the imagery that Douglas conjured, it would be easy for The Black Power Mixtape to lapse into cliché – a compilation of clips featuring afros, leather jackets and clenched fists raised to the sky. Thankfully Olson chooses to dig deeper into the bitter social and political context of the times: the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy; the cockroach and rat-infested slums so many blacks were forced to call home; the racism and brutality of the police.
And the film is at its best when it captures its subjects in moments of intimacy or reflection, far away from the crowds and their public image as revolutionary firebrands. There is a desperately moving scene from 1967 in which Stokely Carmichael interviews his mother on her living room sofa. Coaxing, whispering, he teases from her an account of the daily humiliations experienced by black Americans that is far more affecting than any clips of his own speeches that we see. There’s also an astonishingly powerful interview with Angela Davis from 1972, in which she speaks with a calmness and intellectual acuity that’s all the more striking for the fact that the interview is conducted in a jail cell, where Davis is facing trial for murder, kidnap and criminal conspiracy – charges she was eventually acquitted of.
What the movie ultimately makes clear is that there were two phases in the lifespan of the Panthers. The first is the early militant period when members brandished firearms and threatened to kill police and politicians like California governor Ronald Reagan. But by 1972, with many of its original leaders behind bars or in exile, the party had changed tack. Its new focus was on community action programmes such as free medical clinics, free meals for school-age children and volunteer-run drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres.
It’s perhaps this latter era that accounts for some of the continued interest in the Panthers. Grassroots, self-organised political action is high on the agenda on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment, from the Big Society here to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US. The Panthers aren’t a direct antecedent to any of those movements. But in looking at them, we can see how a previous generation responded to a period of political and economic crisis. And how perhaps one young man in the Seventies named Barack Obama looked at the principle of community organisation they’d established and saw in it the model for his own first steps to power.