Melvin Van Peebles passed away recently on Sept. 22 at the age of 89. He was a filmmaker and actor, even though you may not remember him in many things. I first saw him on an episode of the HBO sex comedy Dream On. He had a small role in the Eddie Murphy movie Boomerang. In 1997, he played the role of Dick Haloran in the the miniseries adaptation of The Shining.
But it was one movie released 50 years ago that would establish him as an icon in film history. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song opened on March 31, 1971 in Detroit. It only appeared on two theater screens, but it went on to make a lot of money considering the small budget and become known as the first of the blaxploitation movies. Shaft was released later that year.
Van Peeples had already had made Watermelon Man when he got the idea for Sweetback. Columbia Pictures had offered him a three-picture deal, just as long as he didn’t make Sweetback. No other major studio would make it either and Van Peebles had a hard time trying to find financing.
Other directors would’ve put Sweetback on the back burner and made what the studios wanted before they could present their pet projects. Many directors do it. Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg have all had to wait years or make a definite blockbuster before they could make certain movies they wanted.
But Van Peebles wasn’t having it. He went and made it on his own.
I saw Sweetback years ago and while there isn’t much there to the plot, given the context of what was available to audiences in 1971, I’m sure it must have been something they haven’t seen ever. And it’s surprising that 50 years later, filmmakers are still trying to make movies outside the norm. They’re still running into the exact same problems Van Peebles did.
Van Peebles himself plays the titular character, who is a male prostitute who is arrested by police in a scapegoat maneuver for the murder of another black man with the intention of releasing him a few days later just to satisfy the unrest in the community. However, on the way to the station, the police stop to accost a member of the Black Panthers who they begin to assault. Sweetback who had been handcuffed to him at first decides to strike back and beat up the cops, using the handcuffs as brass knuckles to put the cops in a coma.
After this, Sweetback goes on the run, getting close to be arrested by police. At the same time, the police put the pressure on those in the black community to tell them where Sweetback may be headed or put pressure so Sweetback might turn himself in. Sweetback gets involved with bikers and hippies while on the run and is still able to make it to Mexico while being wounded and worn down.
It’s an odd movie. For one, Sweetback hardly ever speaks. In the movie, Baadasssss! his son, Mario Van Peebles made about the production, it shows Van Peebles not filming scenes when money wasn’t available. At one point, he ripped out pages of the shooting script. Mario, himself, only 13, at the time of filming Sweetback, had to shoot a very controversial sex scene with an older woman. Some might say the movie is child pornography. The scene is very graphic.
Van Peebles himself shot unsimulated sex scenes so union officials wouldn’t pressure him or the production which would cost the movie more money in dues and regulations. It’s reported that Van Peebles contacted gonorrhea from filming one of the sex scenes and filed a worker’s comp claim with the Directors Guild of America. After receiving money, he used it to buy for film.
During one scene involving a fire, the production had a permit for filming but still waited until the fire trucks came to notify them of the permit. To call it guerilla filmmaking is an understatement. Van Peebles performed his own stunts, which included jumping off a bridge nine times, and even cast his own father in one of the scenes where people gather to watch Sweetback have sex. Gang members were attached to the production to ward off union representatives. Van Peebles did everything he could to cut costs or film in a creative but inexpensive way.
At one point, he had to approach Bill Cosby to ask for a $50,000 loan to finish production. Something like that would seem outrageous with Cosby’s then clean-cut image, but now, it’s less of a surprise.
Even more of a surprise, or good fortune, is that Van Peebles had a connection to the band Earth, Wind and Fire, then really unknown, who were able to do the music for the movie. When they didn’t have any money for advertising, they released the soundtrack first.
Many people hailed Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as a change from what they were used to see. Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers, praised it. And audiences were coming to sold-out shows. Made for only $150,000, it made $15 million.
With Shaft, it ushered in the blaxploitation genre which for the next several years showcased predominantly black actors and filmmakers. Movies like Superfly, Blacula, Coffey, Foxy Brown, and even Dolemite were popular. Pam Grier, Ron O’Neal, Richard Roundtree and Rudy Ray Moore, as well as others became popular.
Unfortunately, the genre wouldn’t last much longer. By the time Dolemite hit theaters, despite being a hit, it was not the most well-made movies. And horror movies like Blackenstein and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde seemed more like parodies.
Even after the success of Sweetback, Van Peebles mostly stayed on the fringe of Hollywood, only directing what he felt like and occasionally acting. He was also a painter and was known to be a good portrait artist. He also wrote novels and plays as well as composed music himself.
Mario seemed to have better success in Hollywood, becoming a director himself with the brilliant crime saga New Jack City, in which characters watch Sweetback on a huge screen.
But Van Peebles legacy shouldn’t be limited to just blaxploitation movies. It’s no surprise that filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino admired his work during the early 1990s when independent filmmaking was all the rage again. Filmmakers of all genres should look to Van Peebles as inspiration never to comprise if you have a story you really want to tell.
Rest in peace, sir. Fade out.