OKP Interview: Goran Olsson [Black Power Mixtape]
Swedish filmmaker Goran Olsson has been a documentary filmmaker since he was fresh-faced 19-year-old. “This is pretty much my life,” he says. His latest undertaking is The Black Power Mixtape – a stunning composite of archival footage and new audio commentary chronicling the turbulent and enigmatic trajectory of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. In a marketplace supersaturated with mediocre-at-best mixtapes from some of the most revered and expendable voices of our time, the mere mention of the word tends to elicit exasperated jeers from the peanut gallery. Yet with vocal drops from the likes of Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Maya Angelou, and Harry Belafonte and music production by The Roots’ Questlove and Sa-Ra Creative Partners’ Om’mas Keith, Olsson has cleverly transcended the concept. Pulling from abandoned footage redisvoere din the basement of a Swedish TV station, he’s crafted a brilliant time capsule reflecting the Scandanavian perspective of two of history’s most dynamic–and globally influential–sociopolitical movements.
Since its release, the film has received rave reviews from critics and audiences far and wide. Yet despite his box office and critical acclaim, his original modest intentions for the film may come as a surprise to many. “My dream was to put this out to libraries in schools and universities,” he admits. “Not only in America, but all over the world. But in order to do that, you had to package and brand it. You can’t just have a gray DVD cover with a big ‘for educational purposes’ stamp on it.” Realizing this, Olsson set out to create a masterful work of art with quite a novel approach. “You have to make it an accessible brand,” he affirms. “I think we managed to do that.” During a stop along his busy international screening tour, Olsson chatted about the complexities of the international perception of black American culture, Sweden’s alleged anti-American movement, and the genesis of his remarkable slice of cinema.
Okayplayer: The concept of the mixtape within the context of hip-hop culture has become somewhat cliché. However, you’ve managed to do something fresh with that concept within the structure of your film. What was the thought process behind that?
Goran Olsson: I looked through the material and came up with this very loose structure of dividing it into years. I did that for several reasons. I wanted to try and find a cinematic narrative structure that was kind of loose that gave the audience the same feeling that I got. Not a remix, but a mixtape. I wanted to have the look and feel of the original footage, separating it into different parts like songs. I thought that was a great way to do it. A mixtape is something that you used to make to impress someone. Often it was something you gave to someone you loved or wanted to make an impression on. It’s like a gift with love connected to it.
OKP: Prior to the obvious global influence of hip-hop, most people wouldn’t have thought that a product of black culture resonated so intimately with any country outside the U.S. What did your interest in the subject matter stem from?
GO: I grew up in the 70s, so I think this thing was kind of present during my childhood. The slavery situation in America is kind of like the Holocaust or the colonization of Africa: every generation must tell the stories again and again from different perspectives. I’m not really trying to tell the story of the black power movement, but I’m trying to tell the story of how it was perceived by in Sweden by Swedish filmmakers and journalists.
OKP: In what ways historically has Sweden, and Europe in general, connected with the sociopolitical and popular facets of black culture?
GO: I think Sweden has had a strong connection for a long time. First when Dr. Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. That connected the establishment in Sweden to the Civil Rights Movement. During the Vietnam War, many people of all colors defected from the U.S. military on their way to Southeast Asia, stopping over in Germany. Since Sweden was neutral, many defected to Sweden. Also, the jazz musicians who came from Paris in the 1950s and 1960 stayed in Denmark and Sweden. Miles Davis was here a lot during the 1950s and recorded an album here. There was a strong connection.
OKP: What about yourself?
GO: My own political awakening came when I was 11-years-old. In 1976, apartheid police in Soweto shot young pupils who were demonstrating in school. They were on strike because they didn’t want to learn the Afrikaans language. After that, my school dedicated one day every year to gather money for the ANC.
OKP: From your observation, in what ways has the perception of black culture changed from the days of the black power movement to present day?
GO: Hip-hop has been such a great cultural force. It influenced lots of generations. Soul music and Motown was big, but it wasn’t the same in the 90s up to now. Hip-hop had a great impact. Of course we have a deeper knowledge [of black culture] than we did back in the 1960s.
OKP: Deeper in a positive, negative, or neutral way?
GO: I think it’s neutral. I don’t think that Swedes care about the problem in America for underprivileged people so much. They understand it, but so many things have changed since the footage for this film was recorded. We’ve had globalization. We have urban problems here. People are laid off; there’s racism. Everything is more the same in the world today.
OKP: What is the racial climate like in Sweden?
GO: We have been fortunate because we haven’t had as much racism, because we were a rich country with job opportunities. We had an agenda of letting everybody in, like Canada. But recently, we’ve had a rightwing wave that swept through Europe, which came to Sweden as well. People in Sweden are treated differently because of skin color, but it’s not the same as in America. It’s more like a hostility towards people not speaking the language perfectly or not having the manners some people feel they’re supposed to have.
OKP: Would you say it’s parallel to France’s race and immigrant issues?
GO: No, that’s different. They’re from a former colony of France, so they speak perfect French. They were thinking they were a part of France. They’re coming from Algeria, Tunisia, and so on. Sweden never had any colonies, so we had more political refugees, immigration, and so on.
OKP: A lot of the footage in your film has never been seen out of Sweden. Was it difficult to gain access to the footage?
GO: All of this was broadcast once in Sweden during the period it was shot in, and then never again. The footage of Dr. King was used many times over and over. But the other stuff was never seen again. It was kind of easy [to get access]. I carved out a deal with the Swedish broadcast company that owned the material that allowed us to do this film. It’s not just a film, but also a duty for me to put it out for people to see. That footage couldn’t just stay in the basement of this big building. If I didn’t do it, who would? It might have laid around forever.
OKP: Robin D.G. Kelley mentions in your film that international news reports made people think that America was in the midst of a civil war during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Do you feel this was the perspective taken not just by international journalists and filmmakers, but the general public as well?
GO: I’m not old enough to recall, but this period was also driven by the war in Vietnam. It looked like the Americans had made a big mistake going to Vietnam. But they also had a big war in their own courtyard back home. So it looked like America was falling into something that was akin to a war: a war on drugs, a war on poverty.
OKP: You have footage in your film that shows Merrill Panitt, founder of TV Guide, alleging that Sweden’s coverage of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements was reflective of an anti-American sentiment. Do you think there was any merit to his claims?
GO: There was so much coverage on Swedish television of what was going on in the States during this period. There were anti-American feelings, especially among young people. But it was mostly connected to the Vietnam War. We love American culture: the music, the films, the products. So it was kind of a reaction to that as well. We were so fed with American culture that there was a counter reaction to it. These were a few of the sparks. It started back in World War II when people came to Europe to fight against the Nazis, then came back to America not having the right to vote. It’s ridiculous. Once you realize that, how can you put your life on the line for a country that doesn’t take care of you?
One thing you have to remember about people like Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, the Black Panthers, and so on: they came from education. And what did they do with the education? The education gave them the tools to make an analysis of the situation. They weren’t driven by rage. Some of them came to Sweden to give lectures at universities. So there was a connection there. Young people were seeing a global perspective of liberation and human rights. How could you fight for human rights in Asia or Africa when you don’t have human rights in America? I think maybe Sweden was mad at America for what happened. We knew about slavery of course. But I think people woke up after WWII and realized that something was missing in this country of freedom. People can’t vote and go to school like everyone else. Voting is basic. But you also have to have food on the table and housing.
OKP: Speaking about perception, you included some interesting footage in your film of a tour bus going through Harlem. The tour guide told the tourists that this was the black man’s ghetto, where everyone is trying to get high. Do you think these gross misconceptions of the American black community influenced Swedes?
GO: There was a split vision amongst Swedes on America. The younger, more radical Swedes had one perception, while mainstream rightwing Swedes had another. It’s easy to laugh at that scene. They are middle and upper-middle class people going to New York for the first time. They didn’t want to blend with jazz cats. They wanted to see the World Trade Center and those kinds of things. But they also wanted to see Harlem with their own eyes. I don’t know those people, but I do know that they did not connect with the struggle. But they were aware of Harlem being a special place in the world. People laugh at them and say they’re on safari in the jungle looking at animals. But I think that’s kind of rude. They are ordinary Swedes who took half a day to come and see Harlem. They knew about the Apollo Theater and all those things. They weren’t trying to change the world. Maybe they left there with the point of view that everyone is on heroin. But in some way, you have to respect them because some people didn’t even go to Harlem.
OKP: The tour guide’s assessment almost feels like a case of the blind leading the blind. Do you feel he should have exercised better judgment in educating the tourists instead of promulgating stereotypes?
GO: Absolutely. He’s kind of overdoing it. I think its ridiculous the way he explained things. This scene was filmed at the time with the intention of making fun of Swedes in Sweden. Like a “Look at those stupid Swedes being disrespectful” thing. I guess it has the same intention in my film. They are passive racists. They’re not being overtly racist, but they’re carrying the passive racist view upon the world. On the other hand, because I’ve seen it so many times, I also have to respect them for going to Harlem.
OKP: You interviewed some very talented, respected, and legendary individuals for your film: Erykah Badu, Abiodun Oyewole, Kenny Gamble, and Talib Kweli. How did you manage get them to sign on for the project?
GO: I worked very closely with Corey Smith [of Blacksmith Management] who did the casting for the Dave Chappelle’s Block Party movie. With Corey, I identified some people that I knew would be interested. I knew that if we showed them the material, they would have some interesting points of view to share. The way I went about it was to set up meetings with them and show them clips on my laptop. When I asked them what they thought about the footage, they spoke. I was inspired by the audio commentary on DVDs where you can turn off the sound of the film and listen to the commentary from the director or the actors in the film.
OKP: How have audiences responded to your film?
GO: You can divide the responses based on audiences in different categories. First of all, Americans: they get much more out of it. The most receptive response has been in New York. People in New York are picking up on it so fast. I don’t think that New Yorkers are faster thinkers than anyone else, but the turnout and response to the film has been so different than those we’ve had in Miami or Los Angeles. Then you have the international audience. Sweden is a special case, of course. Then you have the [international] audiences. It’s very much about the language. If you don’t have the language, then you might not understand everything. I’ve had a lot of veterans from the Black Panthers and other movements [in my audiences]. Really important people from communities in Harlem and Oakland have seen this film, and they love it. I didn’t expect that, because they could have a different point of view. People could have objected to some things. But having the older people be a part of it was fantastic to me.
OKP: How long did it take to complete the film?
GO: It went kind of fast. Two years, I think. It wasn’t too bad. It’s been a ride all the way.
OKP: What was the most challenging aspect of putting this film together?
GO: Having to leave so much stuff out. Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972. Biz Markie mentioned her in his songs as well as some other rappers. She was such a great person and we had some wonderful footage of her, but we couldn’t use it. She wasn’t connected to the black power movement, but she’s this great person. I still have bad feelings about leaving that out. But it will be on the DVD as an extra.
OKP: Have you started working on your next project?
GO: No. At the moment, we’re putting all the text from the interviews into a book about the film. It will be out at the beginning of next year.
OKP: What lessons do you think this film has for a country where racial tensions and maladies are not as overt as they were during the time that most of this footage was filmed?
GO: It’s tough for me to say. The film can be inspiring for every person. It’s not for a specific ethnic group. What we’ve learned is that many people have learned from this movement. I think it was Malcolm X who said you can’t sit around waiting for someone to come around and hand out your rights to you. You have to stand up for your rights yourself. And if that doesn’t work, you have to fight for your rights. That holds true for everyone, even me living in Sweden. That’s something that’s very universal about [the Black Power] movement. They created a blueprint for standing up for yourself and being smart. They were able to combine anger and ideas. These people were brilliant in doing that. They were using themselves as an example. It wasn’t for self-promotion. It was a very modern mixture of personal experience and education. You can disagree with Stokely Carmichael or Angela Davis, but they were so inspiring. Racism has been in America since its inception. But I think it poisoned the American society and the concept of America. If you have concepts like freedom of religion and freedom of speech, then that has to go to everybody. Because if one group is left behind, the whole idea is shit. I think that’s one of the things that drove people in Europe to be so annoyed with America. It’s a virus in the idea of America.