Melvin Van Peebles -wikipedia
Melvin Van Peebles Melvin Van Peebles at a photoshoot in his home/office. Photo: Alex Lozupone via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0 (cropped)

Good Thing Melvin Van Peebles Ignored All That Dumb-Ass Safe Advice

Melvin Van Peebles’ life and art are about breaking the rules, ignoring society’s “wise” advice, and following your heart.

Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films
Melvin Van Peebles
28 September 2021

Sweet Sweetback’s
Baadasssss Song

In one of the bonus discussions, music historian Nelson George and producer Warrington Hudlin notice that Watermelon Man ends with a scene of two white detectives rousting someone in a nightclub, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song opens with a similar scene, as though it’s a sequel. That’s a great insight, yet there’s a seismic difference between the gaudy colors of a studio comedy and the on-the-fly filmmaking of this low-budget indie feature, which proved one of the year’s biggest hits.

As written, directed, edited, and scored by Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is his most aesthetically sophisticated and dynamic film, which sounds odd for a film identified with “blaxploitation”. Van Peebles applies a dazzling cornucopia of avant-garde techniques to a supposed grindhouse story. From the start, we have continuous disjunctive edits of image and sound, more mirror shots, split-screen effects, freeze frames, shifts of time and place, colored solarizations, odd abstract angles, superimpositions, fragmented musical comments, mixes of documentary and fantasy, occluded compositions, symbolic cutting, the whole Eisenstein.

The story, or rather situation, is “man on the run”, specifically the variant “black man on the run from the Man”, as the opening dedication implies. So the forward momentum is also a warped sense of stasis, a running in place that can make the last third feel endless, and which is also appropriate.

A major element in the opening sequence is a flashback to the adolescent Sweetback (played by Mario Van Peebles, the director’s son) losing his virginity in the whorehouse where he lives, presumably a son of one of the workers. Although the scene isn’t pornographic, its nudity and idea must attract controversy, so it bears discussion.

When today’s audiences are offended by something they see in an old film or book or other creative work, there are broadly two possible reasons for that element’s presence. The first is that nobody at the time, or nobody in a position of influence, found it offensive. It was just “part of the culture.” That’s not the case here.

The second reason, perhaps harder for some people to understand, is that the element was included deliberately because it is offensive. Its inclusion is a confrontation, a challenge. There’s more than one reason for such challenges. One is flexing the muscles of a new freedom from censorship. Another is a desire for “realism” or something of that nature. Both reasons apply here, and so does a third.

A third reason is simply what the French Decadents proudly called épater le bourgeois (shock the middle-class), a desire to be rude and offensive, to tear decency and respectability to shreds, to express contempt for the social standards of the “nice” and “polite”. In other words, a revolutionary act. For Van Peebles to begin with such a scene is, if you’ll pardon our French, a colossal act of epatay-ing the motherfucking bourgeois. This unpacks his tagline in the film’s ads: “Rated X by an all-white jury”, in which he exploits his own exploitation.

The standards of acceptable filmmaking, of polite society, of creativity, of entrepreneurship and product distribution, of critical response, of ratings and censorship, and of respectable vs. low-class ways of behavior, are evolved and determined by those who hold power.

Many African-Americans, especially the poorest, have by definition existed outside the bounds of respectability because they are ignored or disrespected by the “right people” who invent such rules. This fact opens up multiple problems of depiction that artists of color wrestle with among themselves, in divisions broadly defined by “uplift” vs. “realism”, and these issues are touched on in a bonus critical discussion about the film’s various receptions among Black intellectuals, but we’re veering slightly from the point.

Any society has alternate parallel worlds. I mean multiple gaps between standards of acceptable public behavior and the way many people behave, between what people say and what they do, what is done and what works of art admit is done, what happens in the world and how it may be shown or written. As a creator and businessman, Van Peebles seizes control of production and presents a visual and thematic “shock” that he knows some viewers will find disgraceful and others titillating, and some simply funny or real, “telling it like it is”.

I’m reluctant to emphasize such a small part of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but it’s an attention-grabbing curtain-raiser that many viewers remember, and it speaks to the whole project. I suspect it might be impossible to shoot or screen such a scene today without creating a firestorm. There are two reasons it was possible in 1971.

On one hand, this element belongs to the New American Cinema’s freedom to break taboos. This same year, one of the biggest box-office hits was Robert Mulligan’s Summer of ’42, scripted by none other than Herman (Watermelon Man) Raucher from his teenage experience of losing his virginity to an adult woman. This blockbuster was very romantic, discreet, and White, and it turned out to be very acceptable to mainstream theatres.

Raucher’s novel, the basis for the film, was also one of the year’s bestsellers, and by a possible coincidence, this is the same year Calder Willingham published his novel, Rambling Rose. He’d script the 1991 film version directed by Martha Coolidge, in which the 13-year-old protagonist, who is the youthful version of the narrator, has a brief scene of tender physical exploration with the older woman. Again, it’s very discreet and nudity-free, yet brief snippets had to be made in the UK to conform with their child pornography laws.

Van Peebles is examining a long-established cultural fantasy of the sexualization of the Black man, a “stud” whose power is located in one anatomical element. That element is later handled heroically and cartoonishly, but first, it’s suffused with sadness or at least ambivalence before it’s marketed as a performance commodity in brothels.

This becomes the one thing the adult Sweetback (played by the filmmaker, performing for us) knows how to do. His power of penetration is expressed literally, as in the scene with a female motorcycle-gang leader in a deliberate echo of an earlier brothel performance before an applauding audience, and metaphorically when he employs a pool cue on a policeman. The paradox of Van Peebles is to be “in your face” while subtle and thought-out. Although this feels like off-the-cuff guerrilla filmmaking, nothing about it hasn’t been analyzed carefully and created, most of all, in the editing room.

Included on a bonus disc is Baadasssss! (2003), Mario Van Peebles’ excellent fictional biopic in which he plays his own father during the making of this film. The disc includes the father-and-son commentary from the original DVD. Cynthia Fuchs reviewed the film for PopMatters here. [See also Matt Bauer’s interview with Van Peebles, here.]

As mentioned, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was a monster hit that was crucial in defining an audience and a genre that would soon have a rush of “blaxploitation” imitators. Van Peebles could have ridden that horse until it dropped under him, just as he could have stayed in Hollywood after Watermelon Man, or just as he might have continued to make French movies after his success with The Story of a Three Day Pass.

His restless creativity wasn’t content to be defined or reigned in, so he shifted over to making two Broadway musicals. That brings us to his next indie feature, again as different as possible from what film audiences could expect.