Monday, January 16, 2012

King Day, America Future, and The Black Power Mixtape 1967--1975

"Took a while to learn how to smile/So now I'm going to talk to my people about the storm"--Mary J. Blige, "The Living Proof," 2011's My Life II.

Watching Swedish filmmaker Goran Olsson's The Black Power Mixtape 1967--1975, I'm thrown back to my childhood, the heart of which could be encapsulated in those same years.  I remember King being alive; I remember telling my mother that Bobby Kennedy was dead; I remember key figures throughout the film, some of which became great inspirations later in my life (I'm thinking in particular of Angela Davis and Elaine Brown). 

But the heart of what I experience watching this film is a strong sense of how the world changed between 1967 and 1975, from my first memories at four and five years old of Civil Rights as the America Dream to being 12 years old and entering junior high with only a sense of confusion about my black classmates...  We were an integrated school, and black and whites, in small numbers, did interact, but there was a gulf not breached, and I could not wrap my head around the anger I sensed there.

And I'm saying this from the perspective of a kid who had some kind of ongoing interaction with blacks. As I suggested, my family was very pro-Civil Rights.  And my mother worked in the black community, and after my parents' divorce, many of her friends were black.  She played soul records, and my older brother played jazz.  I knew the girls at the west side center where my mother worked; I listened to their Jackson 5 records, but I was also terribly shy of them.  They seemed so bold, knowing and worldly, and I to some extent was correct in knowing that I was an ignorant visitor in their world.

The down side of that mindset is that it allowed me to think we lived in separate worlds.  The culture I lived in told me that the Jackson 5 was the music of the girls on the west side, that R&B music was the music of my mother's black friends, that our cultural differences were not to be bridged.  After the initial explosion of rock & roll in the 1950s, which had everything to do with whites being energized by black culture, even after the Beatles invaded America playing Motown and Vee-Jay records (supposedly saving rock and roll), followed closely behind by the Rolling Stones and a slew of others playing blues records, the next musical revolution would not be about race mixing. 

In 1977, my generation would see the birth of two new movements--punk and hip hop.  In general, in the broader culture, these two threads have stayed separate to this day--one morphing into what people call "alt/indie" today, blacks playing only a small role, and the other morphing into a thousand variations of R&B, generally featuring some form of rap.  Though there are a mix of races involved in both forms of music (as there always has been in each genre of music), race only asserts itself as an important factor in the R&B/rap thread.  And that division suggests a cultural divide that has been more or less static since the end of The Black Power Mixtape in 1975.  One of the great virtues of the film is that it keeps this issue framed as the heart of the American story--what America stands for, what it has yet to become.

Any reviewer points out many of the key scenes that make this film worth watching--moments like that when Stokely Carmichael takes over for a Swedish interviewer talking to his mother, getting answers out of her she might not otherwise give.  My favorite moments would probably be Harry Belafonte in 2010 talking about the danger to the system posed by King's Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign in the last year of his life, rapper Taleb Kweli talking about being detained at an airport after 9/11 for listening to a Stokely Carmichael speech, Attorney William Kuntsler admitting to his own unexamined white supremacist assumptions unlearned "the hard way" during the Attica prison riots, and a young panther organizer explaining that Panther detractors "try to distract us with race when capitalism is really the problem."

If I had to pick a scene to recommend in isolation, it would be Angela Davis after she is asked her stand on violence.  You can see her steeling herself to stay calm as she explains that no one can abhor violence more than her, no group more than black Americans.  You can see that steel quiver as she recounts bombs shaking her house in Birmingham, Alabama and the four little girls, one of whom lived next door to her, killed in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.  She ends (and I'm going on memory here), her passion taking over, "When I'm asked about how I feel about violence, it just shows me that the person who's asking that question has no understanding of what's been done to black people since they were first kidnapped and brought to this country."  She seems to regret her anger after that righteously on-target indictment, and she drops her head.  That's the image above, the poster for the film, for good reason.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967--1975 certainly isn't the definitive film on this era in our history, and it is a film, oddly enough, brought to us by Swedish filmmakers.  What it also is, though, is a vivid portrait of a moment when America glimpsed a new future filled with possibility, suffered numerous assassinations and brutal disappointments and retrenched to a freshly jaded sense of just what is possible.  It is a portrait of the revolutionary history of America that, especially after King's assassination, tended not to cross the race divide.  It's the story, on one level, of why I could have been more conscious of Civil Rights as a five year old than I was at twelve, and that's an American tragedy.

But this is not a film without hope.  Though there could have been more, the music--from the Jackson 5 to the Roots--adds to the texture of the many rich images of changing black culture over the 9 years profiled.  It's the indomitable spirit of the people in these images--prisoners, white and black, giving the black power sign at Attica; children studying the revolutionary history of America in community-based schools; even after the flood of narcotics overtakes the ghettos in the early 70s, the determination in flashes of a young woman's eyes as she recounts the horrific abuse she has suffered to maintain her habit and her newfound belief that the worst is behind her.  She is who I think of when I hear the closing track, "Living Proof," off of Mary J. Blige's gorgeous new album, an album that serves as living proof itself that what's great about the American dream still lives.  In the history of civil rights, we see the inextricable connection between fighting for that dream and lifting as we climb.

 For the King day holiday, which is when I am writing this, The Black Power Mixtape 1967--1975 serves as a fitting tribute to Dr. King in part because it does not romanticize him.  Starting with Stokely Carmichael, it often captures viewpoints sharply critical of King's legacy.  At the same time, it celebrates what King's leadership and the Civil Rights Movement did accomplish.  And it reminds us that King's emergent vision, much like the Panther's, was focused on the same issues so vividly before us today--particularly in the vision of the 99% movement, particularly in those aspects of the movement most informed by the history of Civil Rights.

Not in the film, but during the first year of the film, Dr. King made his famous "Where Do We Go From Here" speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  In that speech he said many great things relevant to the world today, but this particular passage resonates.  King says--

A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them - make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.

It reminds me of a famous picture from the Occupy movement, a white worker in the Rust Belt holding up a sign that says, "It's not one thing; it's everything." Evident in this movie, the Black Power movement at its core (it was certainly in the program of the Black Panther Party) understood this.  More than it's depressing to see how little has changed in these four decades, it's heartening to see how many people have shared a truly transformative vision of America.

King follows these statements with, What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, "America, you must be born again!" In the context of the speech, it's clear he's not talking about individual moral baptism; he's talking about the light in the eyes all too evident throughout The Black Power Mixtape, a vision beyond the mountaintop to a world where racism is recognized as everyone's problem
and the system that promotes it everyone's job to confront.