Baadasssss! (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

At once the biography of Melvin Van Peebles as a young, angry, brilliant filmmaker (played by Mario, who looks achingly like his dad in a couple of shots, with cigar, sculpted face, and black hat), and his own biography.


Director: Mario Van Peebles
Cast: Mario Van Peebles, Joy Bryant, Ossie Davis, David Alan Grier, T.K. Carter, Terry Crews, Nia Long, Paul Rodriquez, Saul Rubinek, Khleo Thomas
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 1969-12-31 (Limited release)

"Hell no, we won't go." The beginning of Mario Van Peebles' remarkable Baadasssss!, a montage of anti-war and civil rights demonstrations from the late 1960s and early '70s, resonates in so many directions, it's almost hard to know how to read it. On one level, it's calling up an historical moment, a time when revolution seemed possible, if unlikely, and when "taking it to the streets" meant expecting some response from the folks in charge. Whether that response was aggression, argument, or even, rarely, actual discussion, the demonstrators would be heard.

And on still another level, it's calling up the power of images: these protests made differences, they made "news," because they were captured on film or video. Currently the overriding presumption concerning protests -- marches, sit-ins, rallies -- is that they're all about tv. They need to get coverage, CNN or network if possible, though local will do. Without images, without access to a broader public than the cops or keeping you in line, or the counter-protestors holding placards down the block, your point is lost to time.

Mario Van Peebles came up understanding the power of images as these might incite -- or even grant a peek at -- revolution. And he's hung onto this notion, in spite of all evidence that it's impossible. Whether on television or the internet, in movies or newspapers, pictures can make a difference, they have meaning, they tell stories, and they inspire community and a sense of greatness.

It's no wonder that Mario believes this way, given that his father is, of course, Melvin Van Peebles: writer, filmmaker, composer, and beloved and reviled agitator. And as much as Mario has been grappling with this monumental fact of his birth and circumstance of his experience for years and in a range of movies made, from New Jack City (1991) and Posse (1993), to Panther (1995) and Gang in Blue (1996), he has never come quite so close up against as he has now, with Baadasssss! (formerly and aptly, if not so eloquently, titled, How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass).

At once the biography of his father as a young, angry, brilliant filmmaker (played by Mario, who looks achingly like his dad in a couple of shots, with cigar, sculpted face, and black hat), and his own biography, as son of a difficult, rousing, and scary genius, the movie is also, importantly, a social and political report. It's a report on a state of business and art, a report on the ways that marketing and insight can come together, a report on the forging of community and the value of identity. It's not a report in the sense of news (though it is, at times that), but in the sense of cultural consequence: it's about effects and conflicts, memories and meanings. As the introduction by way of protest "footage" suggests, it is a film about the ways that individuals might influence history.

It is also, of course, the story of the making of Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (1971), Melvin's masterpiece, a process that made life close to unbearable for him, his kids (including 13-year-old Mario, who famously appeared as baby Sweetback, "losing his cherry" and earning his name, and played here by Khleo Thomas), his loyal and cantankerous crew. Deemed an X-rated blaxploitation movie (soon to be followed by studio variations on the theme, like Gordon Parks' Shaft [1971] and Gordon Parks Jr.'s Superfly [1972] -- and there's another father-son story worth telling), this exceedingly independent feature showed the studios that black folks were a market, and more specifically, young, angry, potentially revolutionary folks: the Panthers were among the first to organize to see the film in theaters.

This part of the Baadasssss! story (which Mario adapted, with Dennis Haggerty, from his father's making-of book) begins with 38-year-old Melvin winning kudos and a potential studio contract following the success of 1970's Watermelon Man, a comedy about racism starring Godfrey Cambridge. Pressed by his agent (Saul Rubinek) to take a three-picture deal with Columbia, Van Peebles turns it down, not wanting to be the "token niggerologist." Instead, he decides to make the movie he wants to make. He conjures this idea of a people's hero, an "angry hustler turn[ed] revolutionary," while riding across the gorgeous Southern California desert on his motorcycle, little Mario in tow, an image that calls up Easy Rider as a compatriot in revolutionary spirit: movies might be motivational, if only to drop out.

Melvin's notion of activist filmmaking is slightly different -- he sees a black man gathering disciple around him, winning their confidence and their loyalty by his resistance to The Man (insert here any number of stereotypical bad white men, from dealers to cops to bikers) Though he initially imagines casting an actor in the role, Melvin goes on to play the role of the "street brother" Sweetback himself, in large part for financial and get-around-union issues reasons. But he was also, as Baadasssss! has it, born to play the part of a hustler who's beat up by the cops, then hunted so he can't report the abuse.

A dreaming-conjuring-self-inspiring scene has Melvin in conversation with himself, as he time-lapses through the writing process (apparently locked in his room for days), emerging at last with handwritten script, through his bedroom window into the very community he envisions representing -- all races, all ages, all in pretty-to-think-so harmony. To achieve the picture, he hires a similarly diverse crew, some experienced and most not (as he has little money to pay them and is often demanding on set (and off). So, as much as Sweetback stars (and credits) "the Black community," Melvin has it in his mind to include an even broader base, that is, "All the community, all the faces that Norman Rockwell never painted."

As the Vietnam War and protests against are both raging, as civil rights protestors are becoming militant and increasingly organized, Melvin is making a film to reflect his time, his anger, and faith in the potential for change. He writes a song in his head for the film (which will be scored, by chance, by Earth, Wind & Fire), "You bled my mama, you bled my papa, but you won't bleed me." In dire straits to put together funding and secure film and equipment, he bills the film as "some kind of black porn thing," so the rest of the Hollywood system will ignore it (especially, apparently, the "black" angle means anything goes and who cares). Again and again, he inspires his weary crew, and anxious son, to push on, because what they're doing is extraordinary.

To an extent, it is. Certainly, the pimps and whores structure is less than revolutionary (and the sex scenes, so infamous, are also more awkward than enthralling, and Melvin's woman at the time, Sandra [Nia Long] is left to look after the kids and remind him when he's being a bad dad). But the essential narrative of black struggle, the suggestion that an entire community might unite to keep a wronged man free, is also crucial. While stories of oppression, exploitation, and cruelty are surely and horribly familiar, the story of a rising up against it is rare. More often, such stories are ignored, turned into tabloid fodder or tv movies, evacuating the moral complexities or even the wrongdoing of those in "authority." Imagining such a story, of successful resistance, is a first step.

Mario reimagines the story, in personal, political, and weirdly psychological terms (the Oedipal thing is what it is). In his reimagining, the first step is done -- the imagining, the picturing, the making of history. Melvin's story, different from Sweetback's, has to do with marketing that resistance, to make his movie matter: he promotes it himself (on a radio show with John Singleton playing the interviewer) and installs it in a single theater in Detroit. This leads And now, perhaps. A next story might come to mind now, the use of media not only to sell stories, but to cause them, to encourage action as well as reaction. Sweetback, then and now, is left running, an image that continues to resonate.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.