Friday, February 24, 2012

Notes on Black Power Mixtape

I watched Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 this week. These are just a few passing notes. This is a documentary assembled from recently discovered footage that had been taken in the United States by Swedish film crews, with commentary in 2010 from such figures as musicians Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, John Forté, and Questlove, poet Sonia Sanchez, Bobby Seale and Harry Belafonte, and professor Robin Kelley.

I found the film fascinating, and ultimately, inevitably, sad. The focus is, first, on the activities of the Black Panthers, and such famous figures such as Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis (Davis also provides some present-day commentary). I'm rather abashed to have to admit that I previously had almost zero knowledge of either Carmichael or Davis, though the latter I had only recently decided to begin reading. I mean, I knew a little about them, of course, but not as much as I should have. The movie overall is riveting, but the footage of Carmichael and Davis especially so. An interview with Davis, from prison, is simply stunning in its force and clarity (the topic: violence). They were so beautiful.

We also see some footage of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the period before his assassination; the uprisings after it. Brief appearances by Huey P. Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver. The Attica uprising and the subsequent attack on the prisoners (with a very interesting interview with William Kunstler, the radical lawyer: "Well, I guess I'm a white, middle class citizen of this country, and I had all of the stereotypes about prisoners that any person in my capacity has. I had to learn the hard way that they were decent, honorable men. Much more decent and much more honorable than that went in there to shoot them."). Forté's remarks here, and especially later, after the interview with Davis, on her short 2003 book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, are particularly compelling (Forté spent some time in prison on a drug charge, and has since been active in the prison reform movement).

In the later years, we see the ways drugs flooded American cities, and politics, focus, power, recedes. In light of the scenes that came before, it is difficult to believe anything other than that this was absolutely intentional. (I've always wondered: as if there's any chance huge quantities of illegal drugs could make into the United States without some powerful governmental entity making it happen.) There'd been a clip earlier in the film, in which someone, I forget who, says something like "they can't jail all of us". Then you see the drugs, and the dissipation, and it comes to you with an astonishing clarity, though you already knew it, that this is in fact what they intended. They will jail you, or they will fuck you up. Whatever the case, you will not win.

Given this, it's weird and off-putting that the film presents us with an odd note towards the end of the film. It comes after all of the explanations for and justifications of violence, after Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers and Angela Davis and Bobby Seale, and after the more militant words from Talib Kweli and Questlove, after the assassinations and drugs and hints of the dawn of the prison industrial complex, after the clarity gives way to fogginess, after Black Power gives way to Louis Farrakhan. We hear a voice-over from the record producer, Kenny Gamble, who's not previously been heard from, but who talks of the tremendous ride of the black man (sic) in American history, and contrary to everything we've seen in the film up to that point, seems to extol the virtues of non-violence, and the constitution, and law, and black people using these to become part of "one of the greatest countries that's ever been, the United States of America". Astonishing.


Ryan said...

Are you familiar with Robert Kramer? Icarus Films brought out two of his best known works on DVD recently:
Grace Paley has a role in Milestones. Definitely a must-see if you're interested in post-68 leftist cinema.

Richard said...

I am not familiar with Robert Kramer. Thanks for the heads up!