This week I sat down with Goran Olsson, director of one of the most fascinating documentaries of this year, “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975.” Below is the second part of our conversation, continued from Spout. This half of the interview primarily focuses on the archive-based film’s newer material, namely its voiceover commentary and narration. Also, Olsson shares some thoughts on other documentaries, including one that influenced “Black Power Mixtape” and a favorite film from this year.
What was your initial reason for including the voiceover interviews from the modern perspective? Was it necessary to ultimately have some modern African American authority on the footage?
Some different reasons. Archives are beautiful. There is a technical aspect to this archive material because it’s very crisp and high resolution that enables you to use it. If you have shitty mobile telephone image, you get tired. Still, archive films can be claustrophobic, if you’re in this world all the time. So I wanted to add oxygen into that container. I wanted to have contemporary voices.
Also this is something I worked out with my co-producer, Danny Glover. We wanted to put in some kind of context, to explain how things were related to each other.
The third reason is I was inspired by commentary tracks on DVDs. I love hearing Martin Scorsese talking about the films. I think that is a beautiful way of getting both images and voices at the same time. And that you never actually see the voices.
It’s especially fun when you have commentaries from people who didn’t make the film and maybe weren’t even associated with it.
Right. This is ridiculous, but I have three copies of “Scarface” because when the “golden edition” came out it had Puff Daddy doing a commentary. It’s a great, great thing. You can say whatever you want about Puff Daddy, but it’s a great idea.
But the reason I had Talib Kweli, Questlove and Erykah Badu is that I know them through their music and I knew they’d be interested. They’re interested in the past. They’re interested in the politics. And some of them (maybe not Erykah Badu) have a connection with Sweden because they perform there a lot. That’s why I picked them. I could have had other performers who would have just been like, “What am I supposed to say now?”
Was that always the idea or did you think you would just get people who were associated with the movement or the footage, like Harry Belafonte?
No, I wanted a mix. I wanted young, old, male, female. Because different voices give the film more oxygen. And changing from younger to older and older to young makes it easier to listen to.
Plus I scripted the film in this mix tape format, which I think is crucial. The mix tape concept is something you do to show your exquisite tastes and say, “this is better, listen to this.” A mix tape is something you give someone you love and want to impress with your beautiful taste. It’s got the message of love in the mix tape format as well.
What was it like approaching and meeting Angela Davis about participating in the film?
I was surprised she is funny. And I felt guilty about it. She’s so intelligent, so persistent in her view and everything. Very strict when she’s talking. I adore her. She’s the kind of person who is righting what is wrong. So I assumed, and I feel guilty about assuming something, that she would be more serious. But she’s funny. She cracks jokes. I didn’t expect that. But why shouldn’t she be funny?
“The Black Power Mixtape” is not like any other film I’ve seen lately and I wonder if you actually were influenced or inspired by any documentaries while working on it. Or since.
There is a film, I can’t remember the English title [“A Grin Without a Cat”], but the original is “Le fond de l’air est rouge,” by Chris Marker. It’s not a very good film, but it was inspiration. Sometimes you’re inspired not by the best things, just something that sparks something.
A lot of great documentaries use talking heads. We didn’t want to have talking heads, but the documentary on Harvey Milk [“The Times of Harvey Milk”] is excellent. I forgot all the time that it wasn’t done now, because my reaction when the talking heads came is that they look so young. It’s an old film, but it looks so good. When you look at it 25 years later, it looks like it was done today.
When my grandmother looks at my film, I think she has difficulty seeing the difference between my film and the History Channel. It’s a thin line to make it a cinematic experience. We see the difference, but for her she’s almost 100 years old. So she’s excused. But you see archive over and over and over on television. Interesting and so on, but it’s very rare to see it used in a cinematic environment.
And I think “Senna” is another example, which I love. Mostly because I’m a Formula One freak. It’s the only sport I follow. But they did the opposite of what I did, because they have so much material and the editing is extremely well done. They mastered thousands of hours. But it’s very straight, starting with the day he’s born and ending with his death. I’m not sure that’s the way to do it, but the guys who did it are super intelligent.
[clip via Shadow and Act]