The civil rights battle ignored by the U.S. media

The documentary "Black Power Mixtape" tells a counter-history of the 1960s, through the eyes of foreign journalists

Topics: Television, TV, Documentaries, Civil Rights, Media Criticism,

The civil rights battle ignored by the U.S. mediaA still from "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975"

It was tough enough to track the social and political upheaval of the 1960s through domestic news coverage, let alone to pay attention to what the rest of the world was reporting. But journalists from abroad were fascinated by the roiling changes — and often saw it quite differently.

Though U.S. network coverage of civil rights cruelties helped rally the country against the worst offenders in the South, coverage of revolutionary groups such as the Black Panther Party more often took J. Edgar Hoover’s extremist stance that it was the most dangerous internal threat to the U.S. Rarely did it look at the accomplishments of its free breakfast programs, community organizing and determination to stand up to police harassment and brutality.

Swedish newsmen and filmmakers who didn’t follow the FBI line came to America to learn what they could, looking at life in largely segregated black America, talking frankly and seriously with black leaders and closely following their trials.

Footage of the era, said to have been sitting in a Swedish basement for three decades, became the eye-opening documentary “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” making its U.S. television debut on PBS’ “Independent Lens” Thursday night as part of its Black History Month series.

The modernist title owes in part to filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson using modern-day commentary, from musicians in many cases, to accompany the found footage. Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots add their contemporary revolutionary musing among commentaries by professors and historians.

The wealth of Swedish footage owes in part to the Panthers’ desire to see their movement as an international one, or one that certainly relied on support from outside the U.S.

It is the Panthers’ Embassy in Algeria where Eldridge Cleaver holds court, for example, far from the threat of FBI invasions. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visits to Stockholm to meet King Gustaf VI Adolf that are well preserved, and King’s traveling partner Harry Belafonte recalls the meeting.

Some of the earliest footage in the film shows a young Stokely Carmichael speaking in Stockholm in 1967, stating in the simplest terms the recent history of black movement in the U.S., carefully stepping beyond the nonviolent action approach by King.

“In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent has to have a conscience,” he points out coolly. “The United States has none.”

In some ways, it is the footage of Carmichael, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and honorary “prime minister” for the Panthers, that is the revelation of “The Black Power Mixtape.” How suppressed has his voice been over the years, even at a time of black history mining?

It’s certainly eye-opening for modern-day commentator Kweli, who exclaims, “He has so much passion and fire inside of him,” yet remains quite cool. “He seemed like a regular dude.”

After telling reporters in Stockholm, “I’m not as patient as Dr. King,” Carmichael takes over a Swedish interview of his own mother in Chicago to get to the point: The family’s struggles and limited opportunities can be boiled down to the fact that they are black.

One gets the sense that Swedish journalists enjoyed visiting black ghettos, where they tried to get a taste of life as they paused for interviews with Huey P. Newton and Kathleen Cleaver.

The coverage was noted in the U.S. as well, when TV Guide in a cover story complained about its negativity. Swedish reporters interviewed the story’s writer, balancing it with the view of director Emile de Antonio, who dismisses TV Guide as “an absolute nothing magazine.”

Officially, Sweden had been so critical of America’s role in Vietnam that the U.S. pulled its ambassador from Stockholm in 1968 and ended diplomatic relations with the country altogether for a time in 1972, after Prime Minister Olof Palme compared the bombings of Hanoi with the worst atrocities of Nazis.

Whatever the diplomatic relations, Swedish journalists certainly took the black revolutionaries more seriously and were plainly excited to be the first TV reporters to talk to an imprisoned Angela Davis. Still, because they worked from the same script, the question soon boiled down to: Do you have to use violence to reach your goals? Davis, receiving her first media visitor, was plainly annoyed by this, in just about the only footage that’s in color rather than black-and-white.

“When somebody asks me abut violence, I just find it incredible,” she says. “What it means is that the people who ask have no idea what people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”

The revolutionary tone of the film may provide grist for those on the right who erroneously see PBS as some kind of government-funded left-wing propaganda machine. When was the last time Louis Farrakhan was given a forum to talk about white devils?

But “The Black Power Mixtape” qualifies as a social history of a revolutionary movement, one quashed by a mid-1970s drug infusion to black neighborhoods that film participants are quite sure was caused by the government.

More than that, the modern voices in the film are resolute that lessons of the past need to be learned as the struggle goes on.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>