Every film is like a family. And each has its children to tell, and we’re telling ours.
— Jose Garcia, The Birth of Black Cinema
I was very happy to work with Mario. I’d do it again. Hopefully the next time the brother will pay me.
— Paul Rodriguez, who plays Jose Garcia in Baadasssss!
“This is a movie about a guy making a movie,” says Mario Van Peebles in The Birth of Black Cinema, a documentary included on Sony’s DVD of Baadasssss!. While true, this is also a simple description of an exceptionally complex project. “No one will fund it, no one will touch it,” he continues. “In spite of all these obstacles,” adds Ossie Davis, “he made this film, and the film made history.”
The documentary recounts the particular history crucial to and resulting in Baadasssss!, the racial tensions, the expectation imposed by mainstream white culture that black folks were “colored,” hoping to be “let in” and willing to “behave” in order to gain access. To recapture Melvin Van Peebles’ making of “the first Black Power film,” the documentary includes interviews with Bill Cosby, Michael Mann, John Singleton, cameraman Jose Garcia, Bill Cannon, Maurice white (of Earth, Wind & Fire), and Priscilla Watts, folks who were there or who have made it their business to recall the making of that history. Baadasssss!, then, is about a guy making a movie, but also about making history.
“Hell no, we won’t go.” The beginning of 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 asserting 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 a means to incite and reveal revolution. And he demonstrates such understanding throughout the commentary track for Baadasssss!, a learned conversation with his father Melvin. While DVD includes other worthy extras — “The Premiere,” a featurette about the premiere of Baadasssss!, with cast and crew interviews; and “American Cinematheque Q&A with Melvin Van Peebles,” a performative interview with the man himself — the father-son conversation is most extraordinary. It creates yet another layer to the many that comprise the films (Sweetback and Baadasssss!) and the relationships among the two artists and their eras. Listening to them talk while watching the film is giddy experience, a phenomenal kaleidoscope of imagery, possibility, and meaning, as they share stories of their past and remind one another of incidents not on screen.
Mario has also put his faith in images to work throughout his career. Whether on television or the internet, in movies or newspapers, pictures can make a difference, make connections, inspire community and a sense of purpose. It’s no wonder that Mario believes this way, given the influence of his father, writer, filmmaker, composer, and agitator. And as much as Mario has been grappling with this monumental circumstance of his birth and upbringing in his movies — 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 autobiography, as son of a difficult, rousing genius, the movie is also, 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. (Watching Mario and his sister get in the car with Melvin, who instructs them gruffly, “I’m not your mother, I’m your father, and while you’re here, you do what the fuck I say. Am I clear?”, Mario breaks in laughing, “That’s you, dad! That is you, I’m telling you, brother!”)
In order to get the film made, Melvin worked with porn crews (who worked “under the industry radar”). Deemed an X-rated blaxploitation movie on its release (soon to be followed by studio variations on the theme, like Gordon Parks’ Shaft  and Gordon Parks Jr.’s Superfly  — and there’s another father-son story worth telling), this exceedingly independent feature showed the dominant 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 (“I love me some bike, boy,” says Melvin on the commentary track). With little Mario in tow, the ride into the desert calls up Easy Rider as a compatriot in revolutionary spirit.
Melvin’s notion of activist filmmaking is slightly different — he sees a black man gathering disciples 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 (as Mario notes in the commentary track, the scene revisits an idea he used in Panther, more successfully). 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 it 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. “This is a movie about modern day colonialism,” Melvin tells a prospective producer (Adam West). “My dad,” says Mario in the commentary, is “talking about putting on the screen, a badass nigger is gonna collect some dues. That’s impossible. It’s like the Wright brothers talking about flight and there’s no such thing as aviation.”
Melvin writes a song in his head for the film (which will be scored 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 film is most plainly focused on an essential narrative of black struggle, the suggestion that an entire community might unite to keep a wronged man free, is also crucial.
In the context of history repeating itself, Baadasssss!, no coincidence, was made under similarly constrained circumstances, a budget of $1 million and 18 days to shoot. Its making, like the making of Sweetback, is its own history. 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 vision, the first step is done — the creating, the projecting, 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. 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 last seen on screen running and resonating.