“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 a 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 a cigar, sculpted face, and black hat), and his own biography, as the 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  and Gordon Parks Jr.’s Superfly  — 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 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 is beaten 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 the 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 the 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 the 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.