By Stephanie Zacharek
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"The revolution will not be televised." So Gil Scott-Heron asserted in 1970, and so it was not—at least not on American TV. As demonstrated by The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975, however, Swedish television was another story.
Black nationalism lives and breathes in this remarkably fresh documentary—a standout in last spring's New Directors/New Films—assembled by Göran Hugo Olsson. Sampling and lightly annotating hours of news footage discovered in the Sveriges Television basement, The Black Power Mixtape opens with the 1967 arrival of "fair-skinned and starry-eyed" Swedish journalists in Hallandale, Florida, and ends with excerpts from the 1975 documentary Harlem: Voices, Faces. In between, the Swedes report on political trials in Oakland and breakfast programs in New York; they follow Bobby Seale through Stockholm, visit Eldridge Cleaver in Algiers, and hang out with Stokely Carmichael in his mother's living room.
Although scenes of late-'60s urban disturbances, mass demonstrations, and slum deprivation are not exactly unfamiliar, the Swedish footage is distinguished from the American tele-journalism of the period by its interest in hearing from the most articulate proponents of black power and the programmatic nonviolent attempt to "intensify the struggle." It's a point of view that was mainly available to Americans back then in partisan "guerrilla newsreels," if at all, and is no more common today, when the struggle for civil rights is generally presented by TV as an affirmative saga with a happy ending. Indeed, the Swedes are at one point even confronted by an American journalist for criticizing the U.S. from "a hostile viewpoint." (By then, Sweden, too, was regarded as hostile: The U.S. froze diplomatic relations for more than a year after Prime Minister Olof Palme condemned the Christmas 1972 bombing of Hanoi as a Nazi-like war crime.)
While it's impossible to know the extent of the material Olsson examined, Mixtape follows TV's natural imperative to emphasize charismatic personality. Offering a sharp critique of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Carmichael—the militant new chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—also emerges as a good-natured cuddle bunny with a dazzling smile. Interviewed in her jail cell, the no less youthful Angela Davis, who succeeds Carmichael as the movie's central figure, exudes moral authority as she coolly lectures the Swedes on their own assumptions and is clearly as exotic to them for her intellectual bona fides (having studied with Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno) and her political enemies (Governor Ronald Reagan, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) as for her luxuriant, iconic Afro.
Nixon ran against Black Power, among other things, in 1972, and his reelection (as well as the FBI's counterintelligence program) was a factor in halting the movement's momentum. Olsson's final, post-'72 sequences, largely focusing on Harlem's pacifying heroin plague, are less overtly political and more perversely picturesque. "This is undoubtedly the black man's ghetto," a guide tells the passengers on a Swedish tour bus in a scene that brought back my own memories as a cabbie in the early '70s—taking European backpackers to Frederick Douglass Circle, where they headed up Eighth Avenue for a morning of sightseeing.
Stark footage of shooting galleries populated by wasted Viet vets and conversations with 12-year-old street hustlers provide the context for a concluding interview with Louis Farrakhan. The source of his appeal is immediately evident. So is the realization that, of all the organizations extant during the formative period of black nationalism, the Nation of Islam alone remains—a reminder that, however immediate it feels, Mixtape is in some ways ancient history.
In the case of Bobby Fischer, one year older than Angela Davis and a completely different sort of American activist intellectual, the revolution was televised.
Considered by many to be the greatest chess player who ever lived and certainly the most celebrated, Fischer (1943–2008) first entered America's tele-consciousness as a T-shirt-wearing 14-year-old kid—the youngest U.S. champion and grandmaster in chess history—playing two dozen simultaneous games. Some 14 years later, when his epochal championship match with the Soviet Union's Boris Spassky was televised live, Fischer was by some accounts the best-known man in the world.
Shown earlier this year on HBO, Liz Garbus's Bobby Fischer Against the World is a haunting portrait of the chess genius as an incandescent prodigy and horrifying old crank. Paranoia was Fischer's birthright. A most likely illegitimate red-diaper baby (his official father was never allowed into the U.S.; his mother had a 900-page FBI file) who grew up in Brooklyn under FBI surveillance, Fischer was obsessed with chess from the age of six and was never more than half-socialized—or educated. (Already a champ, he dropped out of Erasmus High, where his classmates included Barbra Streisand.) Virtually unbeatable during his reign as U.S. champ, Fischer finally got his chance to play for the world title monopolized by the Soviets since the end of World War II in 1972.
Garbus devotes most of her movie's first hour to the Spassky match—an event for which Fischer trained like an athlete. However fiercely confident, Fischer was also neurotically skittish—pushing back his flight to Reykjavik, where the match was held, until the last minute. Once there, he forfeited his first game, complained about the noise of the TV cameras, and accused the Soviets of spying. The pressure, external as well as internal, was unprecedented. Fischer was cast as a Cold Warrior (Nixon's national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, gave him a pep talk), even though at the time, it was unclear as to whether Fischer was a master psych-out artist or a total nut job. In either case, his "strategy" worked. Fischer played so brilliantly that even Spassky applauded after his opponent won the sixth game to lead the match.
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