Last night my husband decided to watch the 2010 documentary entitled The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (which you can find on Netflix instant streaming). I was doing my own work next to him on the couch, but by a few minutes into the documentary, I was captivated. By the end, I was in tears.
Basically, in the 1960s and 70s, some Swedish television journalists decided to record documentary coverage of American culture in its various facets. To my understanding, this footage was not rediscovered until somewhat recently. What a find. In particular, these journalists focused on the Black Power movement started in the 1960s, and they have some fascinating interviews and clips of figures such as Stokely Carmichael (eventually the “Honorary Prime Minister” of the Black Panther Party), Angela Davis (another prominent activist eventually associated with the Black Panthers), and Louis Farrakhan (black leader of the Nation of Islam). These clips are interwoven with clips and scenes of regular residents of Harlem commenting on tumultuous events (read: assassinations) at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. Furthermore, other parts of the film are overlaid with the voices of contemporary African American artists such as Questlove and Erykah Badu commenting on the disturbing similarities between the 1960s and today, with respect to racial inequality in this country.
What I find so interesting about this documentary is that it sheds a different light on and contextualizes the question of pacifism vs. militancy. Figures such as Carmichael had grown frustrated with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, approach of nonviolence and had instead opted to take up arms out of self-defense against bigoted, violent, white attacks on them (something of a common occurrence). I think what this documentary does is show why such a choice would make sense given these threats in a dominant white society. At the very least, it’s something to think about given the strong Christian commitment to peace and nonviolence; I think it complicates an uncritical espousal of such values. (To be clear, at this point I’m not saying anything stronger than that; I just think this film provides an important entry point into reflection on these issues.) Lastly, I’d wish they included something about James Cone at the same time that they were exploring Louis Farrakhan’s perspective, but c’est la vie.
If nothing else, at least take a look at Angela Davis’s reflections on the supposed sanctioning of violence by blacks in the context of late 1960s America.
Overall, this documentary at the very least reveals Gene Marks’s recent comments about what “poor black kids” should do to extricate themselves from poverty to be the utter schlock that they are.
Go watch this documentary if you have time; it’s well worth it.
I also enjoyed the film and appreciate your recommendation. I have a couple of thoughts. I recently read a book by Bruce Watson called Freedom Summer that discusses the push for voter registration in Mississippi in the summer of ’64. The registration was headed by SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the very group Carmichael would later lead. Initially committed to nonviolence, the group became radicalized by the continual lynchings of black folks and major civil rights leaders and the Democratic Party’s betrayal of the movement at the 1964 DNC in Atlantic City. Gradually, some of the members of SNCC merged with the black panther party which argued for a revolution against the oppressive capitalistic forces. I say all that to highlight that part of the black power movement developed out of a commitment to nonviolence. The black power movement simply believed that King’s program failed, and I would agree with them in many ways. Recall that King only got murdered once he started criticizing capitalism itself and the Vietnam War, which the black power movement also targeted.
Furthermore, although I consider myself a Christian, I can’t help but thinking there are times when oppressed peoples are absolutely justified to fight back. For a year, I worked with survivors of domestic violence and I really had difficulty with the program’s absolute commitment to nonviolence. I sometimes found that the women who struggled the most with recovery were the ones who had not been able to fight back in some manner. I think oppressed people have every right to fight back against their oppressor. After all, it’s usually a fight to the death. I’m reminded of the time Jesus grew so irate that he grabbed a whip and drove the oppressors out of the Temple. I’ve always appreciated Miranda’s controversial quote, “That Jesus used physical violence is a fact that cannot be denied. “And having made a scourge out of cords he drove them all out of the temple” (John 2:15). The aorist participle signifies here the instrumentality or mode by which the action of the main verb is carried out. What John really says here is, he whipped them all out of the temple. Or does flabby theology think he exhorted them out of the temple?” (Communism in the Bible, h/t: http://tinyurl.com/8ydnuol). I realize that’s not going to convince everyone, but I agree with you that the movie ought to at least complicate any steadfast commitment to nonviolence.
Lastly, I’m glad you pointed out Farrkhan’s interview. It was so interesting to see a young Farrakhan. It would have been interesting to see a James Cone interview, but he has never been that influential outside of the Academy, and Farrakhan has been the most important religious figure (e.g. Million Man March/Day of Atonement) of the movement since King’s death.