Walter Annenberg and The Black Power Mixtape
Last Tuesday, I watched the The Black Power Mixtape (currently streaming on Netflix) to tend my soul after the disastrous Supreme Court ruling on voting rights protections. The film is a fascinating look at media representations of the Black Power Movement through Swedish eyes. The footage was gathered from 1967-1975 by Swedish journalists but was not produced and released until 2011 by Swedish director Goran Olssen and U.S. co-producer Danny Glover.
The film starts with a disclaimer: “it does not presume to tell the whole story of the Black Power Movement, but to show how it was perceived by some Swedish filmmakers.” And this is exactly its strength. (For a much more thorough historical analysis of the movement see Peniel E. Joseph’s Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour). More than the historical recuperation and recontextualization that it claims to be, the documentary is a commentary on global media representation and perspective. The footage itself shows how perspective changes interpretation, with surprising excerpts of Swedish news reporters covering Angela Davis’s trial by matter-of-factly declaring that “No one believes she was behind the murders,” and emphasizing the Black Panthers’ food & education programs and “social activities for the poor in the ghettos” over their guns.
The most compelling aspect of the film is its use of intertextuality. Several expert interviewees (including historian Robin D. G. Kelley and musician Talib Kweli) describe what is happening in the footage for the viewer, but more interestingly, reflect on the discrepancies they see between their own knowledge and memory of the US media representation of black power and the Swedish journalists’ perspectives that are embedded in each frame: namely, sympathy and respect. These are contemporary American intellectual perspectives on historical Swedish journalist perspectives on historical American media agendas, mined from and elicited through the medium of film. Using this technique transforms The Black Power Mixtape from a partial history of black power into a temporally and spatially layered analysis of the openness and mutability — rather than the preserved indexicality — of documentary film.
Scholars of communication and culture should direct their attention to 41:16 – 45:20, where Walter Annenberg is implicated in promoting negative public sentiment toward black power. TV Guide, which the film points out was published by Walter Annenberg, claimed that Swedish TV was anti-American. In 1971, editor Merrill Panitt’s article accused Swedish news of emphasizing only the negative aspects of America and none of the positive ones, particularly for Sweden’s sympathetic view of the plight of black Americans and its critical view of the American war in Viet Nam. American filmmaker Emile de Antonio breaks down the political economy of this journalistic maneuver for the Swedes by describing how TV Guide is “an absolute nothing magazine” but that this story is meaningful because 1. TV Guide’s readership is not interested in such things, and 2. Walter Annenberg is one of Nixon’s closest advisors and financiers. Suggesting W. Annenberg is the link, de Antonio puts two and two together, concluding: “The TV Guide article on Swedish television is simply a reflection of Mr. Nixon’s paranoia.” But there is really nothing simple about patronage controlling news content, particularly as it relates to race and social movements — a topic researched by many students whom Annenberg’s endowment now supports.
As for W. Annenberg’s own motives, a simple juxtaposition might suggest it was less about racial paranoia and more about the profitability of reflecting & shaping public sentiment (if those can be disentangled): in 1971, his TV Guide cover decried black struggle sympathizers as anti-American; in 1977, on the dawn of the TV mini-series ROOTS, the cover story equated black struggle with “The Triumph of an American Family.”