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)

Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles Cast His Stylistic Net Wide in His Groundbreaking Works of the ’70s

For Melvin Van Peebles good cheer and cool heads prevail against the tirade of ill-will and malevolence. His wide-ranging filmmaking style conveys that overarching sentiment.

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

Sweet Sweetback’s

Baadasssss Song (1971)

Regarded as his masterstroke, Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song follows a more internal logic of narrative, where a surreal overlapping of scenes takes the place of linear structure. It is Peebles’ most celebrated work and, perhaps, his most difficult. Bridging the gap between exploitation film and a meandering caper, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the story of a Black sex worker on the run after he bludgeons two police officers into a coma.

The film begins with a bit of risqué exposition; Sweetback as a child orphan living among sex workers. He is quickly indoctrinated into the ways of prostitution and as an adult we see him participate in gender-bending sex parties that are frequented by members of the upper class. One night, the police come to arrest Sweetback on suspicion of murder, despite the lack of evidence. Along the way, the police pick up another Black man and then take him and Sweetback to a deserted stretch of road and beat the man while Sweetback watches.

In a panic, Sweetback beats the two officers and then begins an exhaustive, picaresque run in which he is hounded by the police force. Along the way, he negotiates his escape with passerby, meeting bikers, hippies, gangsters, and drifters. As the police close in, Sweetback makes narrow escape after narrow escape, barely missing gunfire before disappearing into the wilderness.

Because of its highly untraditional structure, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is often hard to follow, as it adheres to the whims of experimenting. The film is a product of its time and all of its era’s cultural tropes. Psychedelia and Parliament funk merge to deliver an utterly trippy excursion into sex and violence. It may be easy to dismiss the film as mere blaxploitation, but Peebles plays around with convention so that it often transcends those boundaries. Sure enough, there is plenty of sexual content (some of it rumored to be unsimulated) that could be written off as lowbrow hokum.

Peebles, however, frames these sequences with an artier panache that suggests a work closer to Warhol, if Warhol had decided to make a socially conscious film on the mistreatment of the African American community during the ‘70s. Many of the edits adopt a collage-like pattern of images; it is much like the quick and successive shifts of a View-Master, where images flash before us like the slides in a reel. Some of the aesthetic design includes anachronistic information, such as presenting Sweetback’s childhood sexual assault while soundtracked by “This Little Light of Mine”, an unnerving display of ironic confluence.

Cultural clashes abound, as when Sweetback wanders into a Hell’s Angels’ den and has to negotiate his way out of their clutches, settling on sex as the assessing tool. The discrepancies between cultures Black and white are pointedly noted, though the presentation is not entirely effective. Using sex as a weapon and as a means of arbitration, it’s unclear whether Peebles intends to make a statement on Black manhood or Sweetback’s sexual degradation as a Black man before a racial division.

Visually, the film is wildly scattershot with color, style, and movement. Backed by an incessant funk soundtrack (provided by Earth, Wind & Fire), Sweetback’s race through city streets and backwater towns is given a true sense of urgency. Meanwhile, the fire and will with which he runs are coded in pop-art hues. Touching upon his earlier works, Peebles once again refers to French film; a sly nod to Jean Cocteau surfaces in a scene in which Sweetback is laid before a tiny pool of water in the desert, much like Cocteau’s Orpheus emerging from a mirror laid upon the sand. It’s a coy sliver of borrowed surrealism, added simply for the sake of the film’s hodgepodge aesthetic.

Uncompromising, challenging, yet always absorbing, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song presents Peebles at his most inventive, allowing his imagination full-reign across narrative, style, and structure. Those looking for linear stories be mindful; the filmmaker indulges here with no reverence to an audience reared on the diet of Hollywood fare. The more curious viewer, however, will find plenty to take away from the film, which marks one of the earliest documents of Afro-surrealism.

Don’t Play Us Cheap‘s Ethical Code

Based on his 1967 French novel La Fête à Harlem, Don’t Play Us Cheap (1972) reinvents the Broadway musical as a vamping camp morality play on the social ethics of ‘70s Harlem. It brings some semblance to the chaos that characterized Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song but is still, overall, a raucous affair. Whereas Peebles’ camera had earlier been a roving instrument in which the furor was captured at varying rates of speed, it is a fixed and static tool here, narrowing in on the cramped quarters of a densely furnished Harlem apartment.

Bridging various elements like Broadway camp, gothic surrealism, silent-era theatrics and an Andrew Lloyd Webber-meets-Scott Joplin set of musical numbers, Don’t Play Us Cheap is lofty in its design. The story involves two men who are, in fact, servants of the devil in the form of imps. Trinity and Brother Dave are demon-bats who assume human form when they crash a birthday party at a Harlem apartment one night. Pledging their allegiance to evil, the two men vow to ruin everyone’s good time at the party.

Things get complicated when Trinity falls for the shy and quaint Earnestine (Rhetta Hughes), who has taken quite a shine to the bashful Trinity. Trinity does his best to destroy the party, but his efforts come with the weight of guilt. He is taken by the overwhelming graciousness of his hosts who have welcomed him into their home with open arms. It seems his burgeoning attraction to Earnestine has softened his heart considerably.

Brother John, however, is in no mood for pleasantries and works overtime to cause misery for the partygoers, putting him at odds with the timorously insecure Trinity. Grievances, joy, and desire are expressed through a series of song and dance numbers that bring true life to this party in peril. 

At times like a sitcom gone wildly off the rails, Don’t Play Us Cheap is full of bickering, bantering dialogue that is every bit as musical as the songs performed in the film. True to its depiction of a casual evening party, talk circles endlessly and often uproariously. Peebles, meanwhile, has his actors stationed front and center like a real stage play, their backs never to the watching viewer. All around them, the set décor is full of glowing, gaudy color.

For the first quarter, we are treated to a few numbers full of joyful soul and makeshift ingenuity; off-the-cuff yet pitched with incredible poise, these are the kinds of songs that seem to solve the world’s troubles within a matter of minutes. Structurally, there are some interesting features here; Peebles, with his narrative, creates a strange impasse in which storylines from The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944) and My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle, 1981) are overlaid with thoughtful stratagem.

When Trinity shows up at the party, new energy is introduced into the frivolity that will deepen both the combined levity and frustrations of these residents. Trinity’s intrusion is a silly, Brechtian, over-the-top spectacle that is dismissively amusing at first. But his engagements with partygoers gather momentum when Peebles suddenly turns the camp horror-comedy on a romantic head. Once Brother John joins the party, the musical numbers are ramped to a dizzying height of rollicking singalongs, consoling lullabies, and triumphant soul-jams, shouldering against each other to produce a dense wall of emotional noise. Despite the stationary framing, the scenes are jumping and full of life.

Like most of Peebles’ work, Don’t Play Us Cheap takes a while for the threads of its story to come together before settling into a comfortable rhythm. Even when the structure seems a little shaky at times, there are some charmingly blithe bits of humor to smooth out the rougher edges. A hilarious number about squashing cockroaches (a not-so-subtle song about eradicating evil) has a host of choreographed actors crawling in circles and beating rolled-up newspapers against a roach-infested floor in time to the music. And the sage Miss Maybell, played by Good Times’ Esther Rolle, provides a quiet measure of laughs to even out the boisterously comic antics of the surrounding party.

Racially, the film essays a certain ethical code that runs deep in Black communities across the American continent. Commenting on the abounding civil unrest and racial strife that was taking over in the country, the film proposes a steadfast positivity to combat the rising heat of turmoil. In Peebles’ world, it is good cheer and cool heads that prevail against the tirade of ill-will and malevolence. It is a sentiment here that may be hammed up to preposterous levels, but Peebles makes his point admirably.

The film has its genesis in a stage play of the same name, which debuted on Broadway earlier in 1972. Peebles, who wrote both the film and stage versions, based the story on an experience of being invited to a dinner party by a stranger he happened upon one afternoon in Manhattan.

Criterion has done a marvelous job of putting together a definitive and comprehensive package of Peebles’ best works. Firstly, the transfers are works to behold; though these films are low-budget and show their age, the image and colors have been restored to a lovely sheen. Much of these films (save for the black-and-white The Story of a Three-Day Pass) bristle with comic book color and it comes through beautifully, even when the dour and muddy surroundings threaten to take over the fantastical realism at times.

Music is a huge part of all of Peebles’ films, from the ‘60s beatnik chic of The Story of a Three-Day Pass to the soul-funk of Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and the gospel rave-ups of Don’t Play Us Cheap. Half of the storytelling in these films relies on the frenetic and emotional soundtrack, and the music comes through on these discs with diamond clarity.

Criterion’s edition is packed with a surfeit of wonderful supplements. There are two short films that Peebles wrote and directed before his debut full-length feature; Three Pickup Men for Herrick and Sunlight, both released in 1957. They do not carry the weight and power of his full features, but they point the way toward what would become The Story of the Three-Day Pass.

The best of the supplements is the docudrama Baadasssss! that Peebles’ son, Mario Van Peebles, directed about the trials and tribulations of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Mario plays his father in the film and the docudrama does a great job of putting much of his father’s original film in a broader context.

There are plenty of interviews with Peebles spread out across the discs for each film, along with interviews with members of the various casts. Two documentaries, The Story Behind “Baadasssss!”: The Birth of Black Cinema and How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) round out the packaging. As with most Criterion releases, there is an extensive essay booklet included that dissects each of these films with considerable acumen. These essays make sound arguments for Peebles’ overlooked percipience in an industry that didn’t have the foresight to ally its resources with his artistry. Hollywood, in yet another example of conglomerate false steps, was none the wiser in its disregard – and so much the poorer for it.