The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975

Director Göran Hugo Olsson’s new documentary announces right away that it “does not presume to tell the whole story of the Black Power Movement, but to show how it was perceived by some Swedish filmmakers.”

That peculiar disclaimer should not be taken lightly. As the film reveals, Sweden’s journalistic attention to the Black American experience once was at least perceptive enough to earn a diplomatic cold shoulder from the United States.

This aptly named “Black Power Mixtape” results from Olsson having rooted around in Swedish TV archives, presented an assembly of his findings to contemporary African-American cultural figures, and recorded their responses, in something akin to a DVD commentary.

What a gimmicky misfire it could be, not to mention culturally, ah, insensitive. Except that the archival footage — just naively receptive enough to propagate its own access — often is extraordinary: Here’s Stokely Carmichael in his mother’s living room, there’s Angela Davis in jail, both looking weary and defiant, with their wits still shining brightly.

For that matter, the commentary has its share of whoa moments too. “In this period,” says Erykah Badu, “the pain to remain the same outweighed the pain to change.” That puts it well, given the epochal crucible on display.

This is not the first illuminating European view of these events: French New Wave mistress Agnès Varda’s half-hour documentary “Black Panthers,” from 1968, studied the Huey Newton trial with a similar manner of outsider’s curiosity. But that was then and this is now.

New original music by Questlove and Om’Mas Keith polishes the sheen of currency, but the imagery in Olsson’s time-capsule collage already is at least fresh enough to stir up some cognitive dissonance in our collective cultural memory. It is “The Black Power Mixtape”‘s prerogative to wonder how this “young dumb country,” as poet Abiodun Oyewole calls it, not without compassion, found its way from there to here, and by what measure the course of that journey can be considered progress.

With much of the nation newly riled by the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia this week, we feel again the searing urgency of racial imbalances in American civic life. And Olsson’s vigorous film reiterates the point that neither historical nor geographical distance can cool a hot topic.