Swedish documentary filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson explores the visceral, long-standing history of violent treatment of the black community and black bodies through two snapshots, supplemented by the essential components of storytelling. His works feel like collages, in which his voice cannot be detected. Still, from that conscious distance, he presents perspective on the deep roots of racial violence have formed through the observations of the time.
Olsson delves into that process in 2014’s Concerning Violence, presenting through even more vivid, simple elements: Lauryn Hill’s clear, textured voice, archival footage for each chapter, and text from Frantz Fanon’s 1961 analysis of the psychological effects of colonization, The Wretched of the Earth, emblazoned across the screen.
His demeanor is disarming, for someone so keen to explore violence, but defiant when he describes his role behind the scenes. Olsson considers himself an illustrator rather than a thinker; if the subject matter were different, one may accuse him of hiding behind that distinction. In this sphere, however, where power, violence, and race collide, the contemporary understanding of how it most certainly went down, is too-often dominated by the pictures history’s victors imagine. As a result, it’s not atypical of us to flounder in articulating change in the face of these narratives. Olsson’s aim is to position the history to speak for itself – presented directly, without interpretation, to the audience. Let’s look into 2011’s, The Black Power Mixtape.
I suggest treating The Black Power Mixtape as you would any other mixtape; it is a period piece with a unique message, a revisiting of an impassioned time through sound and image. It allows you to place today’s issues aside momentarily to take in an account of where we’ve been.
The Black Power Mixtape is presented in 9 chapters, each powerful on its own and moving in sequence. Its greatest value, I found, is in the commentary in response to institutionalized violence, the palatability of the movement for civil and human rights – and the faces of it, as well as the real effects of oppression and violence on the human psyche. I always wonder, is there an answer? A set of instructions? A way of ordering the words? This documentary does not claim that there is, but tells us the role of power dynamics in what America made black people experience, and how black people responsed with resilience.
Olsson’s approach is ideal for providing more context on racial dynamics in the United States of America from 1967-1975: post-Vietnam, during the civil rights movement, in the years following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. A raw, global perspective, picking up where Dr. King left off, from the perspective of Swedish filmmakers. Swedish-American media relations were strained by Swedish criticisms of US actions in the Vietnam War. The filmmakers, indicative of Olsson himself, state from the beginning, “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.”
In fact, black Americans were among the most vocal of those critical about the Vietnam War (see Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon, “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam”). The documentary primarily features footage from black communities throughout the years, balancing detachment with immersion, depicting firsthand accounts of the Black Power Movement. Each depiction is a track in the compilation featuring voice-overs and interviews, with contemporary commentary from Erykah Badu, Questlove, and Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis, and Harry Belafonte.
From the start, you see the way that the violent deaths of the era’s iconic black leaders and their white allies – shake the youth. They claim “there is no future.” Then, along a spectrum of approaches, looked for something of substance in the wake of those losses, something to counter the violent racism enacted upon them to provide an example of the society they envisioned: one where there was security, accessible schooling and healthcare, community.
The Black Power Mixtape provides a view of where America truly started with a candid eye to the violence and power dynamics that once defined us, and may continue to define us. I found it distinguished the Black Lives Matter movement as altogether its own; it brings texture to contemporary discussions of US race relations, the criminal justice system, and poverty.
Individual chapters of The Black Power Mixtape can be found on Youtube, and the complete film can be found on Netflix.
Forty to fifty years ago, when the footage was taken, times were more overtly violent – that is, admittedly, more commentary on what I perceive of civil society then and now, than fact. The 1960s and 70s were closer in proximity to violent norms, slavery, lynching; that is to say, the practices and tensions that manifested in the years between the legal designation of black people as property, and the social and economic integration we are still in the midst of.
For the past three years, with technology and social media broadening the ability to reach out into communities, police brutality has been at the forefront of US discourse and the world is again watching as the violence wreaked by our financially incentivized, structurally racist criminal justice system plays out. That people are watching says we have come a good way; Democratic presidential candidates have spoken openly about criminal justice and drug policy reform. Senator Bernie Sanders explicitly called for community policing, mental health reform, and an end to the prison industrial complex. Grassroots movements around the U.S. nurture community-level reforms and responses to the remnants of the subjugation of black people, towards institutional police accountability for excessive use of force and discriminatory practices.
We have the opportunity to address the issues of 1967-1975 and well before, but can people handle what the times are telling us even now?