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The US black power movement, through Swedish eyes

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2011-11-12

A new documentary from Sweden, “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975”, tackles a tumultuous period of US history through an outsider’s lens. sat down with the film’s director, Goran Hugo Olsson, for an interview.

It’s a chapter of US history that few American filmmakers tackle. But Swedish documentary maker Goran Hugo Olsson, using footage shot by journalists from his native country in the 60s and 70s, has made a film about the black power movement as seen through curious European eyes.

The Black power movement referred to efforts by African-Americans in the late '60s and early '70s to promote racial pride and advance black political and cultural interests. Goals of the Black power movement ranged from fighting oppression and inequalities to setting up separate social and economic institutions.

The Black Panther Party was a revolutionary organisation involved in the movement.

“The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” (coming out in France on November 16) features exclusive interviews conducted by the Swedish reporters with figures linked to the Black Panther Party – including Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis – and African-American militants in Harlem, Brooklyn, Oakland, and other corners of the US.

In addition to the archival clips, Olsson has gathered testimonies from modern-day black artists like musicians Erykah Badu and Questlove and poet Sonia Sanchez who reflect upon the legacy of the movement.

A bouncy, eclectic hip-hop soundtrack lends the “The Black Power Mixtape” a visceral momentum that helps compensate for the film’s lack of historical context. sat down with the director to talk about understanding the US from a Swedish perspective, the link between the black power movement and Barack Obama, the impact of Black Panthers on the Arab Spring, and other topics.

F24: This is not your first film about African-American culture. [2009’s “Am I Black Enough for You?” is a documentary about Philadelphia soul legend Billy Paul]. Where does your interest in the subject come from?

G.O.: When I was growing up in Sweden, there was great consciousness about things going on in America. And I think we enjoy American products and culture, but also, like the French, we love to point out: “Well, not everybody’s free in your country! How can you say you’re such a great country when this happens?”

But it’s very important for me to point out that this film is not the story of the black power movement; it’s the story of how it was perceived by the Swedes. However, [that angle] seems to work brilliantly in the States, because it’s fresh, it’s from the outside. If an American were to do a film like this, people would ask: “Who’s filming this? Why are you doing this, and not so-and-so?”. So I guess they appreciate that it’s from a foreign director.

F24: What do you think that Swedes – both the journalists whose footage from the 60s and 70s is featured in the film and you as a filmmaker today -- were able to bring to the subject that an American might not?

G.O.: The Swedish reporters in the film saw black power in a global context. They saw it as a liberation struggle equal to ones in Africa, in Vietnam, and other struggles for freedom.

Goran Hugo Olsson

Also, the Swedish journalists whose footage is in the film and I, we benefitted from the generosity of [Americans] who understood that I don’t have the American experience. I don’t even have the language. I might ask stupid questions, but I’m not stupid and I mean well and I’m from this remote country. So they try to explain things. If you’re an American, I think it’s trickier. I think [figures from the black power movement] are more open or can feel more free to explain things if you’re a foreigner.

F24: The film only hints at how the America of the black power movement became the America that elected a black president in 2008. What’s your take on that development?

G.O.: It’s obvious to me that you couldn’t have a black president without the civil rights movement and the black power movement. Obama was a community organiser in Chicago, a city that was especially strong in keeping the community services and community-founded institutions that the Panthers and other groups created -- free clinics, for example. So his work in politics came from this environment. The people you see in the film paved the way for people like Obama.

F24: Today, Europe is facing its own issues of xenophobia and discrimination against minority communities. Black power figures interviewed in the movie said their movement represented oppressed people all over the world. Do you see parallels between the US black power movement and certain struggles in Europe?

G.O.: I think you have three different situations. In America, you have the post-slavery syndrome. In France and the UK, you have the post-colonial syndrome. And in Germany and Scandinavia, you have problems of xenophobia against immigrants. It’s racism everywhere, but there are different levels to it. America is a special case. I think slavery and the post-slavery situation is up there with the Holocaust in Europe for every generation to tell again and again. And every generation should find new methods, whether it’s in films or comic books or whatever, to reinvent the telling of that history. It’s our duty to keep those stories alive.

Of course the legacy of the black power movement is obvious today in [certain communities in] Europe, but also in movements like the Arab Spring. The lesson learned from the black power movement is that you can’t sit around and wait for someone to come and hand you your rights. You have to fight for your rights.

F24: Have reactions to the film been different in different countries?

G.O.: The film is a home run in America. The first screening in New York was at MoMA, and people were shouting and applauding several times during the film. I was so moved that I couldn’t even speak afterwards at the Q and A. The reaction in the US overwhelms me.

In Sweden, the younger audience is saying: “We didn’t know this”. But in places like Germany, I can see that they’re really focusing hard to get it, because it’s fast-paced and people talk off camera. They’re used to dubbing over there.

F24: A word about your next project?

G.O.: I can’t say too much yet, because it’s a secret. But I really think you can do something combining movie images and music, and if you have a social issue or a story to tell it’s even better. So I could easily consider doing a film about music. We’ll see. It’s not easy to find something where you believe: “This is going to be a great film.”

Date created : 2011-11-11


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