There was range to the Sundance Film Festival this year. If you asked attendees to name their top films, you’d hear a lot of healthy variance. As usual, social issue docs had a strong showing, a notable thread that jumped out at me was “writing history.” Three documentaries fit together so well that it made me think “getting it on record” must be part of the Zeitgeist. Since there’s only space for two here, I’ll start by mentioning Reagan, by Eugene Jarecki (The Fog of War and Why We Fight), an exceptionally balanced doc which aims to shed light on the real Ronald Reagan, beyond the mythology of the 48th President that still dominates the conservative political discourse here in the United States.
Some people buy into myths, for a variety of reasons, Jarecki aims to right the scales, to emphasize what Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan Jr., says about his father, “He was both smarter and better than the left think he was, and less the giant than many on the right think he was.” Like Jarecki, two other filmmakers added their takes to history:
How excellent would it be if you were sifting through the vault at a television studio, looking through film reels for a project you were researching, when all of a sudden you discovered a huge archive of mostly unseen 16mm footage documenting a vital piece of history? Making its way to Park City from Scandinavia was The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, directed by Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson and coproduced by Danny Glover. Olsson discovered a trough of pristinely preserved footage about the Black Power Movement while working on a movie about Soul Music. He recalls: “The moment we saw this footage we knew we were going to make this movie. I also saw it as my duty to take these fantastic images and make them accessible to an audience.”
Olsson achieved his goal. The doc is paced energetically, cycling through time chronologically, each year focusing on figureheads such as Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis and more. Olsson’s not just laying down content, he mashes it up with a soundtrack by Questlove (of the band Roots) and voice-over commentary by modern day icons Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Abiodun Oyewole, Sonia Sanchez, Harry Belafonte and more. They comment on the very footage we are watching, contextualizing the movement’s impact, offering up the perspective of time. For Olsson, The Black Power Mixtape may be a mixtape but it is not a remix: “I wanted to keep the feeling of the material, not cut it into pieces. My respect is not only for the personalities in the images, but also for the original filmmakers.” Interviews, speeches, and outstanding B-roll footage interweave with luminous, even touching, moments like when Stokely Carmichael offers to help a Swedish news reporter struggling to interview his mother, and takes the mic to conduct the interview himself. I couldn’t shake my curiosity about why the Swedes were so fascinated by the Black Power Movement, their access was singular. Extraordinary footage includes an interview from 1972 with Angela Davis from her jail cell while awaiting trial for murder and kidnapping. For Olsson, the hardest part was leaving out footage that did not fit his storyline. He laments: “We had some awesome footage about [the] Shirley Chisholm campaign in 1972 [the first black women elected to Congress].” I think it’s important to view The Black Power Mixtape as a piece of history, not as a complete history, as it lacks a critical view – for instance of the movement’s complicated relationship with sexism. Nevertheless, it’s a must-see work, a creative missing link to our collective history.
Filling in another vital part of history overlooked – or suppressed – by mainstream culture is the momentous !Women Art Revolution (!WAR) by Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose standout hybrid doc Strange Culture screened at the 2007 edition of Sundance. Like The Black Power Mixtape, the film includes footage shot a long time ago – this time, it was Leeson herself doing the shooting. About 40 years ago, in the late 1960s, Leeson, who is also an artist, began interviewing friends and colleagues integral to the women’s art scene in the United States.
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