Monday, April 23, 2012

Film Quarterly: Interview with Göran Hugo Olsson

Interview with Göran Hugo Olsson
by Rob White
Film Quarterly

The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 is a chronologically presented assemblage of re-edited documentary film from the archive of the Swedish National Broadcast Company. To this original material director Göran Hugo Olsson has added explanatory titles and a soundtrack that consists of original music by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Om’Mas Keith together with voiceover commentary by (among others) musicians Erykah Badu and Talib Kweli as well as professors Angela Davis, Robin Kelley, and Sonia Sanchez. Davis’s participation is noteworthy because The Black Power Mixtape includes an electrifying clip of her being interviewed in San Rafael County Prison in 1972 and rounding on the questioner, Bo Holmström: “you ask me whether I approve of violence,” she says, going on to recount the experience of seeing childhood friends of hers murdered in bomb attacks in Birmingham, Alabama, “limbs and heads strewn all over the place.” “When someone asks me about violence,” she adds, “what it means is the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea … what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”

Though it has nine main segments, one for each year recorded, The Black Power Mixtape can be described as a kind of three-act tragedy. The first phase is one of radical eloquence and increasingly bold, militant organization. Stokely Carmichael is the star of the proceedings but we also see a grassroots Black Panther schoolroom in Oakland and hear Panther co-founder Bobby Seale declare that “we will defend ourselves, we will shoot … because we are bent on survival.” Crackdown occurs in the next phase: Eldridge Cleaver speaks unconvincingly from Algiers about “government-in-exile” but at home thousands of activists are imprisoned and scores killed. (When we see Davis after her release she is speaking from a platform that appears to be protected by bulletproof glass.) The final part of the film relies heavily on Lars Ulvestam’s documentary Harlem: Voices, Faces which dwells on the spreading blight of heroin. In one clip a young former prostitute and addict talks to camera about turning her life around, but it is arguably the discourse of self-betterment itself that contributes to an impression of isolation and vulnerability. The language of politics and the idea of a mass movement are no longer present. Although the voiceover commentators shortly afterwards discuss the lasting achievements of the struggle for black liberation in the 1960s and 70s, I could not shake a feeling of loss which emerged from the gulf between the defiant confidence of Davis’s jail-cell remarks and the suffering words of this lonely Harlem woman.

The film’s relationship to history is ruminative. Because of the audio commentary The Black Power Mixtape stages a “moving conversation between past and present,” as B. Rich put it in her spring 2011 Film Quarterly Sundance report. The dialogic mode of presentation means that it would be hard to watch the film without reflecting on the question of viewpoint. The Swedish crews who filmed the source footage were visitors to the U.S., reporting from a country in crisis and at war, their sympathies evidently extended to such people as the Hallandale, Florida veteran who speaks near the start of The Black Power Mixtape about being “ridiculed, discriminated, treated as less than a man … the environment has a whole lot to do with keeping a man down.” But is there truly an outsider perspective on such a history? When Olsson includes 1973 footage of a tourist bus tour of Harlem, its Swedish guide talking up the danger of street crime, before cutting to a camera position inside a police car, the question no longer permits of an easy answer—and that is how it should be.

To Read the Interview

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