Movie of the week: Amandla in America

So says Swedish documentary-maker Göran Hugo Olsson. He dug around in the archives of Swedish state TV and found a treasure trove - "amazing and rich" material, "absolutely crisp footage with amazing personalities, shown only once, a long time ago, in Sweden". Olsson says he saw it as his "duty to take these fantastic images from the cellar and make them accessible to an audience".

And so we have The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, showing at the Bioscope in Johannesburg from this weekend and at the Labia in Cape Town from October 12.

The "mixtape" idea, says Olsson, was a way to put together the footage without messing with it too much. It's like the cassettes people used to make in the 1970s and 1980s, before there were CDs or computers that could copy a CD and make from it another CD. Sitting with your record player and your tape deck, you'd select your favourite songs one by one and make a tape that was an anthology of your selection.

Of course that doesn't mean that Olsson hasn't edited the footage or used material already edited, presumably by Swedish TV, for broadcast in the 1970s. A full hour's interview with Angela Davis, say, while in jail awaiting trial, would have taken up two-thirds of his running time. But he has made an effort to preserve the feeling of the original footage, as well as attempting not to intervene too obviously as the anthologiser, and the film certainly transmits a strong flavour of the times and of the incidents and people reported on.

Over the footage, as mixtaped together by Olsson, are voiceovers commenting on the time and on the footage itself. He has an excellent range of commentators, including figures who were important in the black power struggle, such as the ever-eloquent Davis herself. Considering the amount of thought and study she has given to issues such as prisons in the United States, in the decades since she was a prisoner, this is a more meaningful contribution than one often gets in documentaries that look back at a particular era. Her comments, along with others', take the issues raised by the original black power movement right up to their continuing relevance today.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defence was founded in 1966, drawing on the strongly theorised notions of black-separatist political organisation as articulated by Stokely Carmichael. Early in The Black Power Mixtape, Carmichael is shown on a visit to Sweden, where he clearly articulates the idea that Martin Luther King's insistence on passive resistance and non-violent action has failed to lead to the promised liberation from racist laws and general discrimination against black people. Such satyagraha only works, says Carmichael, if you can prick the conscience of the rulers, but "the United States has no conscience".

The Panthers aimed to defend black communities against regular police attacks, as well as to provide elements of self-help to such poor communities. Their feeding scheme for poor black kids was a resounding success, even if only in publicity terms: it helped to counteract the public image, as hitherto fostered by the Panthers, of angry black men toting loaded shotguns, like those who briefly invaded and occupied the Californian state assembly in 1967 (an incident not covered in the film). FBI head J Edgar Hoover felt that the Panthers were the single biggest threat to internal security in the US, and the feeding scheme a particularly galling intervention on their part.

Ironically, the law that allowed the Panthers legally to carry loaded shotguns in public was one of those old right-wing laws of which Americans are so fond, and which are still argued about today; conservatives are particularly keen on the people's right to bear arms, though in California's case (where the Panthers began) you had to make sure your weapon was openly displayed and wasn't pointed at anyone in particular. Rightwingers such as Hoover believed, presumably, in this right to bear arms - unless of course you were a black man or woman and you bore your arms in a revolutionary sort of way.

The Panthers may not have been pointing their guns at anyone in particular when they posed proudly with their weaponry, but Panther H Rap Brown did coin, at a rally, the immortal tagline: "How many white folks did you kill today?" And another Panther, James Forman, said that if he was assassinated he wanted the revolutionaries to respond in kind, only more so: "I want 30 police stations blown up, one Southern governor, two mayors, and 500 cops dead!"

Such cries are understandable when black leaders were being killed - not just King himself in 1968 but various Panthers soon after, on top of hundreds of arrests. The FBI and police had certainly instituted a serious and often violent campaign against the Panthers and their fellow travellers, as detailed in the documentary Cointelpro 101, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. But the use of violence by the Panthers also contributed to the decline of the organisation, with internal ructions leading to the murders of their own members. In one case, a 19-year-old recruit was tortured to death because he was believed to be a police informant.

Panther Huey Newton was jailed for the murder of a cop, a charge of which he claimed, at the time of his trial, to be innocent. This led to a huge campaign to free him, one of the Panthers' most successful attempts to gain wider support; the American left rallied round. His conviction was ultimately overturned on appeal, but later (before his own death in a shooting) he admitted he had in fact killed the cop, and he wasn't sorry at all.

The full story of how the Panthers declined into gangsterism (even as they moved ideologically beyond black separatism and towards global socialist principles) is not told in The Black Power Mixtape, and it would surely need a different kind of documentary to do so properly. This one is more descriptive than it is analytical, despite the commentary by Davis and the like. Its strength is to provide an unparalleled picture of black life at the time, in places such as Harlem, as well as its necessarily impressionistic take on the Panthers.

But the Panthers' story, like that of individuals such as Newton, remind one once more of Amilcar Cabral's great revolutionary dictum, so often honoured only in the breach: "Tell no lies, claim no easy victories."

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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