Trove of Unseen Footage Revives History in ‘The Black Power Mixtape’

Swiss filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson has unearthed hundreds of hours of intimate footage of black power movement leaders. Colorlines talks to Olsson about his remarkable new documentary.

By Channing Kennedy Sep 06, 2011

"The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975" is an incredible documentary with an equally incredible story behind it. The film, which opens in New York this week, is constructed entirely from hundreds of hours of archival footage of the black power movement, footage that’s not just rare, but unseen; it was shot by a Swedish news crew in the 1960s and 1970s, then left untouched in a Swedish TV station’s cellar for 30 years, where it was discovered by documentary filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson.

Olsson knew he had something amazing on his hands and had no difficulty finding interested parties. In the finished feature-length film, the present-day voices of Harry Belafonte, Erykah Badu, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, ?uestlove and others bring context to the history.

"The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975" drew critical acclaim after screening at Sundance in January. I had the privilege of seeing it at the True/False Film Festival in Missouri, and I haven’t shut up about it since. So I was thrilled to speak with Olsson on a transatlantic Skype call last week, and to ask him about Sweden’s little-heard connection to the black power movement, his role as a white, European man telling the story of black American communities, and the future of archival footage.

Thanks for being up at midnight to speak with me, Göran. So how has the reception to the film been so far?

It’s been very good, worldwide. Of course, America is a special case. You have to remember that abroad, it’s a very dense film in terms of verbal information. People not native in English, they’re following the film and enjoying it, but they don’t get the small, interesting stuff that people are actually saying between the lines.

We had a special showing for the Black Panther veterans in the Bay Area last week, and they were so into it–I couldn’t attend, but it was a very important screening for me. I got reports that they were screaming and yelling and they were so happy. Looking back from the present day, we only see the top of the iceberg, we see Angela Davis. But there were so many people who were so important and made such sacrifices. Ericka Huggins, for example; she was in a very bad situation where they threw her in jail as a political prisoner, and took her kid away from her. She was a very important figure for the movement. She didn’t make it into the film, but she was at that screening. That meant a lot to me.

So how did you, as a Swede, come to be familiar with the American-born black power movement? Is it something you learned about in history classes in school? 

Well, there was a strong connection between Sweden and black people in America, and I think it began when Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. That connected Sweden, even the establishment in Sweden, to Dr. King and the civil rights movement. And Sweden was neutral, so many black people defected from the Vietnam War via Germany, and then came to Sweden, sought asylum here. We also had a lot of black Americans coming here from Paris; when the great jazz era of the 1950s and 1960s was over, they came to Scandinavia.

Sweden, well, we were a very radical society at the time! I was going to school in the ’70s and ’80s, and this was an important topic for our education.

Discussing the process by which you made the film: how much footage was there, and how much didn’t make it into the film?

That’s a very simple question, and a very tricky problem to solve. I think we had 20 hours of really good material, and then maybe 40 hours that could go in, and then a hundred hours that could be filler. There are only two images in the film that we took from elsewhere, from outside our found footage. That’s the hard part of doing this film, of course, is leaving out material that we couldn’t fit into the structure.

On the topic of video editing, an area in which a person can have a great deal of unseen influence over a story: how do you think your perspective as a white man affected the story you told about these black communities? How did it influence what you put in and what got left out?

For this project, I’m not thinking about myself as a white man; I’m thinking about myself as a Swede. I’m an outsider looking at something that I can identify with. I’m using the same method–or lack of method, lack of knowledge–as the filmmaker and journalist did back when they recorded the images. You know what I mean? The reception that I got, and that the documentarians and journalists got in the ’60s and ’70s–coming from Sweden, knocking on the Black Panthers’ door, and saying, "Hello, we are from Sweden, what are you doing here?" These people understand that I don’t have all the history, but they also understand that I’m not stupid, even though I don’t have the language.

Everyone was very polite, very forthcoming and very generous in trying to explain these things to me. People have been so generous to me–I don’t think they’d be that to an American, or even a British documentary filmmaker. But they understand that I don’t understand.

So you’re saying your ability to ask stupid questions in the context was a real asset?

Yeah, of course. Also, I think, as Swedes, our perspective on this issue is a global one, and I think they appreciated that.

A friend of mine whom I saw the film with wondered why more time wasn’t given to the government’s efforts to introduce drugs into black communities. That seems like a really key point.

It’s a good question, and the answer is unfortunately very easy: because we had no footage of it. First, it’s not an easy thing to get on film. And I don’t think the filmmakers–well, maybe they knew, but that’s a limitation of being an outsider, that they couldn’t get more into that.

How hard the FBI hit on this movement is obvious now, when they’re releasing classified papers and documents. For example, recently we found out that the FBI called up Stokely Carmichael and said, "You have to leave the country or you will get killed," and he said, "Yeah, if you want to play it that way, be my guest. Come along." So they hang up. That didn’t work, so they called his mother and said, "If your son doesn’t leave the country, you will lose your son." And the same night, he got on a cargo ship to Africa and basically never came back. He could face the FBI, but he couldn’t face the fact that his mother would be in grief.

And that describes not just the method, but how much they knew about this man and his connections, about his family. You see that in the film, that they knew about this strong connection and they used it. All the conspiracies, the FBI is doing blah blah–they were true! They were true.

But as a filmmaker, you have to realize that film is a very… superficial medium compared to books. You can’t explain something, but you can meet a person, get a feeling for her in a deeper way. Books can give you another dimension and they can’t compete. They do different work to tell the story. If you want to go deeper, you have to go to the book. Which we also say in the film.

Now, speaking not just of race, but of time: since this footage was shot, our situation has changed a great deal, but racial inequality hasn’t left the U.S., or Sweden, or the rest of the world. What lessons are there for us in this rediscovered footage?

I think the black power movement is a blueprint–not only to other movements, but on a human individual level. I believe it comes from Malcolm X: You can’t sit and wait around for someone to come around and give you your rights, just hand out rights. You have to stand up for your rights yourself. You have that duty as a person. And if that’s not enough, you have to fight for your rights. Even me, as a middle-class white man living in Sweden, I have to fight for my kids at school, or in my workplace. You can’t be passive and hope for someone to fulfill some kind of freedom for you. You have to do that yourself.

Do you think that applies when the struggles are systemic, like in education or economics? Is the black power movement still relevant, still reproducible, when you can’t easily point to "The Man"?

That’s complicated, but I think the underlying level of every struggle, in Egypt or America or Sweden, is in the segregation between the economic classes and access to education.

People tend to forget that all these people–Stokely, Angela Davis, the Black Panthers–they came from universities. They were the first generation to get a higher education in numbers. And in university, they got to analyze the society and their situation and put words on it. Education played a key role in the black power movement.

One of the reasons you were able to find this footage in the first place is because it was on ’70s film stock, which has a long lifespan under the right conditions. That’s great, but making a documentary in the ’70s was prohibitively expensive. Nowadays, everything is documented, and everything is put up on YouTube, but there’s no guarantee that any of it will survive into the next decades, or what of it is getting heard. As a filmmaker, what do you think is better for democracy: everyone’s stories told at once or a few stories that survive?

I think it’s much better now. Of course, you see all the footage that’s coming out from around the world, from phones and so on. But another factor is that so many small cheap documentaries are getting made, even if they’re never finished. That footage is getting preserved and anything could come out of that.

Is it better? I don’t know. But this is the world we have, and we have to make the most of it. You can be nostalgic, but nobody would really want to go back, to any point in history, given the option.

Do you plan to make this film accessible to schools?

Yeah, that was my goal all the time. My goal wasn’t to go to film festivals and destroy a year of my life, sitting in airplanes and pollution. My goal was to cut this film and make it attractive, and put those ridiculous film-festival logos on it in order to make it stand out in the library. Not a gray cover, educational purpose, this is good for you. I wanted it to be like a book, to sit in a library for you now or for a student 10 years from now, for people interested in this time, or in Angela, or whatever, you can find it. That was my goal, to make this history accessible forever.