Sunday, December 18, 2011

Greg Tate: Fight for rights, will to power -- The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Fight for rights, will to power: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
by Greg Tate
Sight and Sound (British Film Institute)


The Black Power Mixtape Remixed 1967-1975 is an exotic document of this turbulent, extremely violent transitional moment in American race history. Exotic because it’s the culmination of the near-decade an intrepid Swedish TV news team spent interviewing prominent Black American radicals of the day – Stokley Carmichael, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Elaine Brown and Angela Davis. All were dramatic, eloquent, charismatic figures of their time who, except for the still-active Davis, are today hardly household names to the average black American under 40.

Like Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan, they all seem incredibly well-prepared in their mid 20s to set the world aflame intellectually and dominate the media – but far less prepared than the Viet Cong or Fidel Castro to withstand the withering, brute and constitutionally illegal attacks directed at them and theirs by the US government, especially the FBI’s fascistic overlord J Edgar Hoover.

Time has not diminished their critiques of American power or racism, nor their undeniable star power – any of them and their radical histories could easily sustain a documentary or narrative feature film of its own. Mixtape captures most of them in the short period before they would be tried, convicted or exiled by Hoover’s stated and manically implemented obsession with preventing the “rise of another black prophet” after King.

The footage of Carmichael and Davis is the most poignant and illuminating. Though the film doesn’t say so, it was Carmichael who brought the phrase ‘Black Power’ into vogue, famously goading King to give it airtime near the end of the two-week-long march to Selma, Alabama. The film demands that those who don’t know these figures investigate them afterwards for more background and context. On film the jocular Carmichael proves so at ease in his own skin that he could have given Sidney Poitier competition as a leading man, and challenged Bob Marley as a lyrical protest balladeer.

Carmichael invites himself to take over an interview the news crew had wrangled with his mother in the Chicago-projects apartment in which he was raised. He then patiently extracts from her the pained admission that his Trinidadian immigrant father, a skilled carpenter, was a lifelong victim of employment discrimination.

As noted by progressive hip-hop MC Talib Kweli in his voiceover, Carmichael emerges here as a “regular guy” who also happened to be a incendiary and mesmerising speaker – one still so provocative that Kweli recalls being accosted by FBI and TSA agents at an airport after 9/11 for merely listening to a 40-year-old Carmichael speech. Some may take Kweli’s intimation of wiretaps as conspiratorial and apocryphal, but no-one familiar with Hoover’s paranoia and surveillance of black progressives will be among them. (The biggest laugh in the film comes from Hoover’s claim that the most dangerous threat to the internal security of the United States was the Black Panther party’s free breakfast program. But Hoover was not joking.)

The progress of the film is also a tacit record of the Panther’s off-screen dismantling by Nixon and Hoover’s COINTELPRO conspiracy against black leadership. The Panther’s demise by exile, imprisonment and judicial malfeasance is presented at a glance, but the Panthers expended all their political capital on the campaigns to Free Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Angela Davis.

Davis’s prison interview here offers the most astute and moving rationale for extreme black retaliation to American racial extremists. When asked to justify the advocacy of black violence, Davis recalls her childhood experience of her Birmingham, Alabama community being routinely bombed by Klansmen at the behest of notorious county sheriff Bull Connor. Davis recalls this motherfucker using local radio to promote and direct such violence on a weekly basis. The extreme close-up of her angry, watering eyes when she speaks of the discovery of four classmates’ body parts after the infamous 1963 Birmingham church bombing provides all the justification for retribution any rational person should need.

To Read the Rest of the Commentary

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