Friday, September 23, 2011

Documenting the Historical Legacy of the Black Power Movement

Angela Davis being interviewed in prison in 1970

Stokely Carmichael in Sweden, 1967

Ericka Huggins with her daughter Mai in 1970

Ericka Huggins, 2011

Danny Glover
Executive Producer of 'The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975'

Interview and Film Review
by Chuleenan Svetvilas

In the United States footage of the black power movement is usually limited to scenes of fiery speeches, angry protests, and violence. In the new documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Swedish filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson offers a far more nuanced, complex, and humane view using previously unreleased archival footage shot by Swedish TV reporters during this time period.

There is a moving scene with Stokely Carmichael gently interviewing his mother about the employment difficulties his father faced as a black man. And there is a riveting jailhouse interview of Angela Davis from 1970 speaking eloquently and passionately about violence against black people. This documentary film essay also includes interviews with everyday Americans as well as Black Panther Party members and political activists.

For 30 years, this footage languished in the basement of Swedish Television. None of the footage had ever been seen outside of Sweden before. Once Olsson discovered the footage, he knew he had to make a film.

In addition to the archival footage and interviews, the director also includes voiceover commentary by contemporary musical artists Eryka Badu, Talib Kweli, and Questlove; interviews and comments by professors, writers, and activists Robin D. G. Kelly and Sonia Sanchez as well as singer/songwriter and activist Harry Belafonte and the filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles.

As a documentary film, Black Power Mixtape is an uneven combination of riveting archival footage, audio commentary by contemporary artists that ranges from insightful (Talib Kweli) to bland (Questlove), and fascinating interviews organized in rough chronological order. There is no theme or agenda being put forth, which gives the film an open quality that is rare in U.S. documentaries. Olsson simply leaves the interpretation up to the viewer.

Ericka Huggins is passionate about the film Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 and would like as many people as possible to see the film. “I can’t tell you how many young students, graduate students I talked to who want to be teachers who felt re-inspired by this film,” says Huggins, a sociology professor at California State University, East Bay. She is even giving extra credit to her students who see the film.

Huggins is intimately familiar with this time period. She was a leader of the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles, along with her husband John Huggins, who was shot and killed on the UCLA campus in 1969. Chuleenan Svetvilas interviewed Huggins about the film, which opens in the San Francisco Bay Area this weekend at Landmark Theatres.


Chuleenan Svetvilas: As someone who was involved in the Black Panther Party and lived through the time period covered in the film, what would you hope that people take away from it?

Ericka Huggins: That there are still challenges that we all face as citizens of the United States that we can reach, we can all step forward and be a part of making necessary changes. The film gives us a really good view of a piece of history, just a tiny piece of history and the history that preceded it and the history that followed begged the question, “Well, that was then, what do we do now?” and there are actually all kinds of things that we can do individually and collectively.

CS: There’s a lot of fascinating footage. Had you seen any of the footage in the film before?

EH: No, I can’t say that I did and I loved that I was seeing familiar footage and handled in the film in such a fresh way. I would say Goran Olsson had fresh eyes for what viewers would want to see because he had never seen it before. And he’s not American, which is the beauty of the film. So he doesn’t feel the necessity to put a slant on it or tell us how we should watch it.

CS: As you were watching it, were any scenes were surprising to you?

EH: None of the scenes were surprising. I lived through that period. So none of it surprised me. Actually it brought up memories of that period of time. All of the people in the clips that I knew and the people that I didn’t know were so familiar to me because I worked with all of the different aspects of communities represented in the film. The most touching and inspiring clips in the film were the interview with Stokely Carmichael and his mother and the way that Angela [Davis] so naturally and powerfully answered a question that is constantly asked and she answered it in such a way in both instances when I saw the film in communities, let’s say, it caused a powerful response in the audience, a thankful grateful response in the audience. And I’m sure that it caused in some people some self-reflection. Those are two powerful scenes.

Another is with a Vietnam vet who was talking about what it meant for an African-American man to come home from war and not really feel at home, not be given the respect that he was due. If we just extract the country name, Vietnam and put in Afghanistan, we have the same circumstance and the same resulting repressive and oppressive forces at play for the people in the countries where we are warring and the soldiers, the men and women who go to fight. Those were some of the scenes that really stood out to me. There were many others, like the funny and poignant poem that Lewis Michaux just gives to us. It’s just hilarious and there’s such truth in it. I remember that bookstore. It was a meeting place, an activist hub, a place for learning and knowledge because there weren’t many places that you could go and find out about the histories of people of color, not just African Americans but Michaux’s bookstore also had lots of other books as well. Now there are many other bookstores like it but that one was a historical phenomenon.

CS: What’s unusual to me about the film is that the filmmaker has contemporary people, younger people like Talib Kweli and Eryka Badu who are commenting on that time period, unlike traditional documentaries that usually use one voiceover and fewer voices are being heard. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t. What did you think about that approach, using younger people, some of these musicians as additional voiceover commentary?

I loved it. I loved every commentary that every person made. The reason why is that is what the film is for from my perspective The film was created I believe to have us not only think about what we’re watching and what we’re understanding of it but to talk about it. Talib Kweli and Robin Kelly helped us to think about what we were watching but not tell us what we were seeing, once again, because the audiences are filled with people who are younger, because we don’t live in the ‘60s and ‘70s any more, we’re in 2011. It’s important that we have a modern understanding so it all works for me. I don’t have any critique of the film because I don’t watch it as if it’s a documentary.

I’m not a filmmaker, I’m not a critic but from the standpoint of history and with the concern I have for the students that I teach, my own children and all of the young people who I come into contact with, there would be no way for them to see the compilation of images and voices if it weren’t for this film. It is a great beginning and I hope that many other films do this. And for the people who critique the film, my request of them is to make one that does work.

So I really appreciated all of the comments, one particular comment that seems to stand out to young people who come to me after the film showing to talk about it, and I’m sure this will continue because I’ve given this film as extra credit to my students I teach sociology and it’s a powerful film in that way. One that that really stands out that people are talking about is Talib Kweli’s commentary on being on the plane and listening to [a recording of] Stokely Carmichael speak and then being stalked by the airport police or law enforcement folk. And so then the question is why and then you come to the answer, unless you’re into denial. Because we can listen to anything we want on our own earphones in the privacy of our own individual world. So that was powerful and was the prompt for a lot of great conversation. There are so many conversation points in it.

One of the challenges we face in the United States today is that we cannot talk about things like this. I’m talking we, not just African Americans and communities of color talk about the combination of race and class and gender a lot. They may not call those constructs race, class and gender but it’s always talked about. But one of the things that’s difficult is to be in the room with European Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, indigenous Americans and Latin American or Latinos from that diaspora and talk like this after watching such a film. We can talk but it’s difficult to stay in the conversation as it is and not get sidetracked by personal emotions or guilt or shame or free-floating anger, any of those things. I think that this film because it’s gentle in a way – what do I mean by that – it doesn’t hit you over the head with anything. It just shows some footage with some music and some voice narrative here and there. It does make people want to talk about it. People didn’t want to leave the room when we had the community viewing of it in Oakland. They wanted to talk, they wanted to ask each other questions, to be grateful to one another for the work they do. I met poets and artists in the room who wanted to take something from the film and move forward with it in their own work. So I believe it’s important.

Americans have a tendency to, the way we’re socialized is, watch a film, critique it and say I didn’t like it or that was nice and go home and go about our regular whatever it is.

So I’m hoping that we will be inspired by the film. I hope that many, many people will go and see it. That’s why I’m doing these interviews. I don’t work for the publicist. [laughter]

CS: Of all the young people, the musicians, I thought Talib Kweli’s comments were the most relevant and the most interesting and informed. He’s clearly studied the period and has an interest in that era.

EH: Yes, and I want to remind you about what Eryka Badu said about the importance of telling our stories, whether they are historical stories or our current stories, that we need to tell them because there are so many stories out there. I thought about that for myself because I’m writing my autobiography, how important it is that we tell our stories and not let others tell our stories. And the mass media told these very stories to us from ‘67 to ‘75, the period of the film, completely different story. We were hateful, we were criminal, we were ruining the face of the United States and it’s way of governing, rather than looking at what was really happening. So I thought what she said was quite wise and I felt that in the things she said, she’d studied history as well. If you listen carefully to Eryka Badu’s music, all of it, not just some of it, not just what gets played on the radio, you hear history in her lyrics. So sometimes intelligent or intellectual or educated or well versed in something might exclude people who are educated in different kinds of ways and intelligent in different kinds of ways because there isn’t only one way of being intelligent or intellectual.

CS: You mentioned that you’re having your students seeing the film as extra credit. Do they have to do any writing about the film for your class?

EH: Yes, they have to write three highlights of the film, whatever they are, I don’t mean film clips. Just three highlights of this film from a sociological perspective and show me their ticket stub. Other than that I want them to see it for themselves. I’m giving them a number of points for seeing it because they are paying money. And they are not wealthy students.

CS: You had mentioned the difference between how the mainstream media presented this time period – how it’s filtered through stereotypes of African Americans whereas in the Black Power Mixtape, the footage is simply being shown with this additional filter on top of it. Can you talk more about this contrast?

EH: for instance when there are documentaries that have been done on the period of the 60s and 70s. I’ll give an example: I watched one American documentary where we saw water hoses knocking down people. We were given a context that excused that behavior. And the filmmaker probably didn’t even realize it. We’re seeing that in the context of the movement let’s say to cross the bridge with Martin Luther King, there were so many people, the police felt it necessary to respond. I don’t know that that’s what they felt. That something was going to happen. It was a peaceful march across a bridge of hundreds of people. Why did the police feel they had to respond?

So Goran Olsson, a filmmaker from Sweden, just shows us the film, the footage. And what we come away with is African-American people at that time were being knocked down by water hoses and/or beaten by people for no reason that we can discern. And is there a reason good enough is the other thing you’re left with. One of the people who interviewed me last week said some of the scenes were unbearable for her to watch. She’s an Irish American woman. She said “I was so embarrassed by the tour guide on the bus. I wanted it to stop.”

Although it hurt my heart, I’ve heard it, I’ve seen it, it’s there. Goran just showed it to us. He didn’t excuse the tour guide. He didn’t tell us why we were seeing it. He gave it to us, open-ended. That interviewer who said it was hard for her to watch, is my age so she remembered the news footage of people being chased by dogs, beaten with billy clubs by police or iron rods by violent white Americans, and what we were talking about that day is that the violence is often placed in the hands of the people who defend themselves.

For instance a new spin on some documentaries is, unlike the peaceful marches led by Martin Luther King, police came in and responded to a protest and people fought back. What? We’re watching police beat people. And they don’t know nonviolence. And more and more importantly, as Stokely said, the police don’t know nonviolence. So [in the film] we were not asked to blame people. We weren’t even asked to blame the people who did what they did. We were just asked to think about what we are seeing and what we can do to change it. And the interviewer who I talked to said it really inspired her to do more. And that is something that a lot of people have said. What can I do in my life where I am with the people that I’m connected to - to uplift humanity. It’s powerful if everybody decides in their own way, in their own work with the people that they’re connected to - to do just a bit more. Exponentially, it means change.

I met Goran Olsson through Skype and he is one of the most humble and kind human beings I’ve met in a long time. His original intention was not to make a film about the 1960s. He was planning to do something else and as he put it in this TV archives, he found this “treasure.” Well, first of all, he saw it as a treasure, not something he could sell on eBay.

CS: He valued it.

EH: He valued it and I’m sure it was hard. He did something beautiful with it. He doesn’t claim to understand all the nuances of African-American history or Black Liberation Movements, not at all. He just thought people have to see this. And he was right. He takes his teenage children around to help him with it. He brought them to the States when he interviewed a number of people. Wonderful filmmaker but more importantly, wonderful human being. His film is an example of what we can do with the skills and talents we have and the people we’re connected to.

Chuleenan Svetvilas is a writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her film articles have appeared online or in print in Alternet, Documentary, The Panopticon Review, DOX, Mother Jones, and the book Soccer vs. the State (PM Press, 2011)