The scene is moving because of the great tenderness Carmichael The Uncompromising Revolutionary displays toward his soft-spoken mother, and because in that and other scenes in this engrossing movie we see Carmichael as he is rarely elsewhere seen: relaxed and smiling, joking around with friends, even singing a song. What the scene reveals is not that Carmichael was a far more fully-rounded human being that he is usually portrayed, which should go without saying, but just how often American history seeks to flatten and even demonize black men who stand aggressively in the service of black liberation. What the scene reveals is how effective such flattening almost always is, even among those of us who think we know better. What stands revealed is seeing Stokely smile is not him but us.
Black Power Mixtapes is a fascinating compilation of interviews, news accounts and melancholy images from the fertile, fevered years of the Black Power Movement. Shot by Swedish journalists, who traveled to America to see for themselves – and interpret for their countrymen -- what the heck was going on over here, the snippets together offer a fresh and compelling look at a time not so long ago but already calcified in public knowledge.
I plan to make my undergraduate students see it, those studying African-American literature. When asked about Stokely Carmichael they come up blank (sigh). But when asked to toss out adjectives for Malcolm X or the Black Panthers or just about any other black activist or writer who called for an immediate end to black oppression they hand me these: extremist, angry, violent. About Rosa Parks they know only that her feet were tired. About Martin Luther King Jr. they only know he had some kind of dream, one involving being able to sit in a restaurant with white people. Problem solved.
This short and fierce movie can’t fix all that; it makes no pretense of being a comprehensive look at a wide-ranging and disjointed movement that spanned everything from Pan-Africanism to black cultural nationalism to Marxism, and beyond. But it does serve as a bracing corrective to America’s tendency to reduce complicated people and complicated times into two-dimensional stick figures, with gentle heroes and hostile villains and nothing in between. The interview with a pale but radiant Angela Davis in prison is alone worth a hundred cheap and sentimental movies like The Help.
This movie also makes you think. What in retrospect may seem naïve or misguided – namely, revolution -- in the moment of these tapes seems breathtakingly possible. As Dr. King said in his groundbreaking 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, mentioned here but far less enshrined in the American imagination than that dream one, “These are revolutionary times.”
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