Issues of race and class in the early 1960s are playing out in the multiplex right now in the period literary drama "The Help." But two new documentaries follow that cultural thread even further forward, using recently unearthed archival material to examine historical events in a current context.
"The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975" is a loosely constructed time capsule composed entirely of film footage captured by Swedish news crews during the titular era. Director Göran Hugo Olsson uses voice-overs from African American artists, activists and scholars — including musicians Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, Talib Kweli and Erykah Badu — reacting to the archival material throughout the film, which is available on video on demand and opens in theaters in Los Angeles on Sept. 23.
"Thunder Soul," on the other hand, looks at the transformative heritage of one school's music program to emphasize the importance of arts education. In the documentary opening in Los Angeles on Oct. 7, director Mark Landsman tells in essence two stories: that of Houston's award-winning Kashmere High School Stage Band in the 1970s and its dynamic leader, Conrad "Prof" Johnson, alongside the reunion of a group of Kashmere alumni for a February 2008 tribute concert as an elderly Prof's health was in rapid decline.
Given the figures who surface in "Mixtape" — activists including Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael — Olsson's film is certainly the more obviously political document. The 45-year-old filmmaker was researching another project when he uncovered news footage that closely documented the Black Power era in the United States and Europe. Much of the material had aired on Swedish television at the time and had then been dutifully filed away.
To give the vintage footage an added contemporary spin, he recruited some key figures — Davis, Harry Belafonte, former communications secretary of the Black Panther Party Kathleen Cleaver — to record audio commentary responding to images of their younger selves.
"My goal from the beginning was to create something that could be in the libraries and universities so that students could have an alternative source of trying to describe this time period," Olsson said during a recent interview from Stockholm.
The film hangs together on a timeline that transitions from optimism to disillusionment; Olsson tried to maintain a freewheeling structure reminiscent of an old-school music mixtape. The approach allowed him to include glimpses of Martin Luther King Jr. and Belafonte greeting the king of Sweden, schoolchildren chanting in a Black Panther classroom and a young junkie chronicling the degradation of her addiction. The images give an overall impression of a volatile era.
Cleaver, who now teaches at Emory and Yale universities, says the documentary points out how ideas from that time that once seemed disruptive have since been accepted as part of the broader cultural conversation.
"Power to the people, free medical care, better education, we shouldn't have to be subjected to the brutality of the police," Cleaver said. "It wasn't all that revolutionary in and of itself, it was just revolutionary when poor black people proposed that this is the way the country be changed and then proceeded to take measures to change it. That's revolutionary. But the concepts are progressive ideas that are not that out of the mainstream of American social justice."
"Thunder Soul" tells a more specific story about the Kashmere band and the dedication and influence of Johnson. Coming from an unknown, predominantly black high school in Houston, the group would go on to be invited to play in Europe and Japan. At the 1972 All-American High School Stage Band Festival in Mobile, Ala., the group's bold presence and choice of material was unlike that of any other in the competition. Its members broke barriers simply by stepping onstage.
"They might as well have been James Brown appearing on 'The Lawrence Welk Show,'" Landsman said. "It's not just that they were an amazing high school band that won all these trophies — it's that they did it at a time when an all-black band on the white competition circuit was an anomaly. And this in itself is a political statement."
Landsman, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker currently directing episodes of the TV documentary series "Intervention," had resigned himself to the fact that he might not have footage of the band in its prime and was already editing his film when he at last discovered the existence of "Prof and His Band." A short made by Houston newsman Charles Porter, that documentary constitutes much of the older footage in "Thunder Soul."
"We struggled a lot with how we were going to tell this story," Landsman said during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "I wasn't worried about the present-day vérité footage. I knew we were going to get good stuff, but I was like 'Where's the motion pictures, what archival material exists?' I researched every newsroom in Texas to see if anything existed on this high school band."
With "Prof and His Band," Landsman found what he needed. In it, the band makes plain why it was such a force in its day — the trademark performance style of the Kashmere High School Stage Band featured fresh tunes with a modern feel — many, Johnson's own compositions — augmented with syncopated dance moves on the bandstand.
It was Landsman's hope that the film's dual story lines would highlight how the influence Johnson had on the young people under his tutelage continued long after they left school, underscoring the importance of arts education.
"I knew that the reunion would make it contemporary," Landsman said, "and more than that, the issue would bring it forward and make it relevant."
Bringing the past into the present, both "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975" and "Thunder Soul" put old material to new uses. Each film manages to examine the convergence of culture and politics in a fresh way.
"It's a story each generation is going to have to tell in a new way, to take a different approach," said Olsson of reconsidering the Black Power era. "Every generation has to do it all the time. The work is not done."