Melvin Van Peebles is a director, writer, composer and visual artist, who once conducted cable cars in San Francisco. All of these jobs require focus and drive. Now 81 years old, he is still not messing around. He fronts his own band, and is currently headlining his first art show in New York.
Melvin had directed his first studio feature, Watermelon Man in 1970, and rather than continue making more comedies for mass consumption ("How about 'Fried Chicken Man'?" suggests his agent in Baadasssss!), Van Peebles wrote a movie he wanted to not only make, but see. Disgusted by the derogatory African American stereotypes Hollywood had been churning out for decades, 1970 was the perfect time for his cinematic vision. War, assassinations, systematic oppression—people were fed up and tired of feeling that way. Van Peebles' artistic antennae were out, taking it all in. Hollywood, typically, was ten years behind the times.
Sweetback would never be funded by the studio system. It would have to be independent (with the help of a last-minute Hail Mary $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby). When it was released, only two U.S. theaters would initially show it. No papers would accept advertisements for it due to an X rating. Melvin composed all the music for the film (with then-unknown Earth, Wind & Fire, who were living in a one-room apartment at the time), and pre-released a soundtrack album as an unprecedented marketing promotion. Huey P. Newton would end up endorsing the film as revolutionary and it became required viewing for new Black Panther recruits. It became the highest grossest independent film of all time and ushered in an era of black action heroes, embraced by the paying movie public.
All film students, if they're attending a decent school, learn of Sweetback because it really did help change the face and business of cinema forever. It ushered in (for better or worse) the popular studio-run blaxploitation genre, And would open the door for more gritty "naturalistic" films directed by mavericks who wanted to tell stories from the street level, including Spike Lee, who is quoted as saying, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song gave us all the answers we needed. This was an example of how to make a film (a real movie), distribute it yourself, and most important, get paid."
Sweetback is as much a sound collage and visual montage, as a portrait of a man on a surreal run from corrupt Johnny Law. The title character, (played by Melvin because he couldn't use union hires or find experienced actors who would settle for only six lines of dialogue), as an orphan growing up in a brothel, uses sex rather than violence as his power. (The very graphic sex scenes ironically kept my film professors from screening the film in class.) Sweetback becomes a folk hero who's running through a nightmare of jarring jump cuts, multiple exposures, disjointed musical and sound cues, frame-within-frame shots, and all manner of strange angles and pistol-whipping mayhem to portray the nightmare of corruption and racism on the streets. It's poetry, jazz riff, gospel choir, and peep show in one, and for the first time in film history at that time, he gets away. He is the hero.
Baadasssss! is the re-enactment of the making Sweetback, as well as a boy-bonds-with-his-father story. But there's another great component: the trauma and heartbreak of creating a film from start to finish. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go into labor and bring forth new life? The closest thing I can compare it to is working on a low-budget feature. And after the birth, you're not done! There's still distribution and the hope of regaining some of your money back. Your work is never done, raising children, or in filmmaking.
Mario as Melvin with his ever-present cigar. He looks a lot like his dad, and intercuts actual footage from Sweetback in clever ways for more authenticity. His father's only directive before production, "Don't make me too nice." Mario concurred, portraying his dad as a charismatic, driven, difficult, stubborn, frightening, intense and draining man. Funding this biopic was no doubt a difficult task.
Melvin writes his screenplay. I'm working on a screenplay now and my brain feels just like this. How do you make the act of writing cinematic? With a days-long montage and a stroll into a mirror of neighborhood characters—one of the few effects shots, perhaps in honor of Melvin's many effects shots in Sweetback.
Ladies and gentlemen, the 70s. This was a low-budget independent film, like its predecessor—not an easy thing for a period production. Good set design lets you thoroughly know where you are in time and place.
Rainn Philips as Bill, the hippie who wants to be an executive producer. He adds the element of goofiness in every scene, including his attempts at finding financial backing through the counter-culture.
Look at these guys. The guy on the right's definitely on MDMA and wants to finance a movie that will "change human consciousness not only horizontally but vertically" (I paraphrase). His lawyer on the left looks like Night Stalker killer Richard Ramirez. The romance of producing a film definitely ends here.
One of Melvin's directives for Sweetback is to include the people he grew up with, from Chicago's South Side, to South Central L.A. "All the people Norman Rockwell never painted."
Another crucial element - a crew that would reflect the diversity of the U.S. Not only were the studio bosses solidly white but so were the unions. Most of his crew would be new to filmmaking and working under the radar to avoid union fines. They pretended to be making a porn film, which wasn't union mandated—truly underground, guerrilla cinema.
Casting call - young Mario (Klheo Thomas) is taking it all in on the counter-top right. His dad would cast him as young Sweetback, placing him in the raw opening scene, losing his virginity with a prostitute. For Sweetback, sex is his power (as much power a poor, silent-man-running can have). But I can't imagine Mario at 14 felt powerful making that scene. Thomas, a very good child actor, has a talent for projecting his inner emotional world, whether he has dialogue or not.
Melvin confronts his alter-ego—his own self-doubt, before shooting without sufficient funds. Over the course of the production he will lose almost everything, his savings, his family, his sight. But somehow never his drive and vision. A genius-or-madman situation.
Anyone who doubts Melvin's artistry—look at his title. Only an artist could come up with such a name. Yet he made all his money back and then some. Rare.
Baadasssss! has a brilliantly edited scene of Sweetback's opening night in Detroit. Melvin, in his DVD interview, likens it to "two-legged horse race." The agony and ecstasy of seeing your art on the big screen while praying to some unheeding God that someone will show up to see your work is all encapsulated here.
According to Melvin, he stood clear so Mario could tell the story his own way. Most fathers would have a hard time doing that and it's a form of collaboration, in a way.
|Melvin Van Peebles|
Baadasssss! trailer (with *sigh* white narrator)
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song trailer