The Black Power Mix Tape is a stunning documentary film set during and after the civil rights movement in the US, by Swedish filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson.
Olsson discovered reels of documentary footage in the Swedish national television archives surrounding the lives of black Americans, including extensive footage of The Black Panthers, Nation of Islam and interviews with figures such as Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael. Set to a sensational soundtrack, it has a clear and relevant message about racism and the struggles of black people growing up in the US. With the recent events such as the Arab Spring and the occupation of Wall Street, this film could not have been released at a more important time. Striking, inspiring and powerful, the message is simple – go see it to be in it. i-D online met with the director at this year’s BFI London Film Festival to find out more.
How did you discover all this old footage tucked away in the Swedish television archives? I was looking for images for another film and I heard this rumour that Sweden had more on The Black Panthers than the US combined, so I began looking around. On the same day I saw the sparkling speech by Stokely Carmichael and the interview with Angela Davis from jail, facing trial and the death penalty, and I was struck by that. When I saw the pieces on the same day, it gave me the story because it starts out in 1967, it’s black and white; they’re all in their sharp suits; they’re optimistic and it’s beautiful in that 60s way, and then in 1972 Angela Davis is in jail and it’s in colour, but she’s in jail facing the death penalty. I realised that this was a story in itself, because if I had only discovered the Stokely Carmichael speech, maybe I would have done a film just about him. They had been lying there forever and I took it upon myself to put it out to an audience. But I think one of the sad things about making documentaries is that it’s the opposite to books, as in you make a documentary, you show it and then it disappears. You write a book and it’s there forever, and I wanted to do something that would be in libraries, that you could go back to. It’s also good quality and that’s important, because when you make an archive film you can get very tired after a while, with bad quality images, but this material is really crisp and it makes it more enjoyable, you can really see the clothes, how the knits were made and so on, so it’s all kinds of things going on in the image.
What was the connection between Sweden and The Black Panther movement? Why do you think there was so much of this footage from Swedish reporters? Why Sweden, it’s a good question. I think there are several answers to that. One is that when Martin Luther King won a nobel prize in 1964, it connected the establishment in Sweden to the civil rights movement, and then when 1968 came around, they connected to the movement that took over, the black power movement. One thing you have to remember about these people that made up the movement, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, The Black Panthers, they didn’t come out of rage, they came out of education. They were the first generation to get a good education. They were the smartest minds of their generation and they used the tools they were given in education. They had been lecturing in Sweden at universities and they knew that Europeans had a different take on things, so there was quite an exchange. Also there were quite a few people defecting from the US army on the way to Vietnam from Germany to Sweden to seek asylum. Sweden was a very open society in those days. I really admire and respect all the people in my film and I also really admire the filmmakers and reporters who did this.
Was it just about documenting the past or did you see any parallels with the present political context in Sweden or elsewhere during the making of this film? I think the black power movement is a blueprint to other ethical movements, it’s also about gender issues and activism, and I think it comes from Malcom X. You can’t sit around and wait for someone to come around and hand out your rights, you have to stand up for your rights yourself.
What has the response been so far and what’s next for you? It was released in Sweden and now it’s being released in 46 cities in America, which is unheard of not just for a documentary but also for any Swedish film, but that’s just the beginning. The film is travelling. When I started this film, people told me that demonstrations and revolutions was just 60s stuff that it would never happen again. We have seen not only the Arab Spring, but also demonstrations in Israel, you know 400,000 people demonstrated for social justice, and Madrid, the occupation of Wall Street, and the riots here in London, which of course was different, and here there have been strikes and walkouts in universities. I hope that these people keep inspiring young people. You can keep young people down for some time, but you can’t keep them down all of the time, and I think Egypt was the strongest example.
The Black Power Mix Tape is released by Soda Pictures in cinemas today.
Text: Joe Cohen