Sweetback in the Cosmos: An Interview with Melvin Van Peebles

He’s almost single-handedly invented the Blaxploitation film genre, but as his recent collaboration with Heliocentrics proves, Melvin Van Peebles is much more than simply a filmmaker in command of his craft.

The Last Transmission
7 October 2014

April 23, 1971. Detroit’s Grand Circus Theater showcases nothing less than the birth of modern African American film when it premieres auteur Melvin Van Peebles’ third feature, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. A defiant, cinematic power fist with a middle finger cocked towards years of humiliating and submissive African American film images that was made and distributed independently in the face of incredible trials and odds (see son Mario’s 2004 film Baadasssss for more details), Sweetback became a phenomenon, earning over $10 million at the box office, inadvertently birthing the “blaxploitation” movement and paving a celluloid path of self-determination for the likes of Jamaa Fanaka, Spike Lee, Robert Townshend, and Julie Dash, to name a few.

A key component to the film’s aesthetic and promotion is its landmark score composed by Van Peebles and performed by Earth, Wind and Fire, a synergy that would prove highly influential in the marketing of subsequent films. A true renaissance man who has written books, plays, and traded stocks — music remains a continuing pursuit for Van Peebles who has released seven studio albums including the soundtracks to his Broadway musicals Don’t’Play Us Cheap and Ain’t Supposed To Die A Natural Death.

In recent years Van Peebles has collaborated with members of writer Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar Arkestra under the name Melvin Van Peebles wid Laxative and his latest recording sees him teaming with eclectic British psychedelic funkateers The Heliocentrics, for the aural space-funk odyssey The Last Transmission.

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What are your earliest musical memories?

You weren’t even born then! [laughs] I had some money once when I was a kid. They had old record players at that time and I bought a record. I brought the record home and my mom was so angry — she really was a nice mom — and she tore it up! I loved the drumming on the record and there was no name for the music, at least that I knew about but the record was [sings] “I want a big leg mama, yeah, yeah”, “I want a big leg mama to tell my troubles to”, and I didn’t know the sexual implications of it so mom didn’t quite go along with that [laughs]. Across the street from where my daddy’s shop was and where we lived there were record stores and I used to see all of the famous names at that time standing out on the street singing to push their records and this was before LPs.

Could you explain the role that music plays in your films?

I have a sound in my head and the way a film should be. The way I see music, I treat it as one of the characters. That’s how important it was to me. I treat it as one of my partners, one of my actors. You have to also remember that there was a racial situation and I had no one else to turn to. I had to do it myself. Truth of the matter is, I can’t even read or write music. I just had to number everything on a piano and nobody ever taught me so I didn’t think about it as intelligently as you’re questioning me.

One thing that people might not know about you that ties in with the new album is that you did graduate work in Astronomy in Holland during the 1950s? Could you tell me about that?

What’s quite hilarious is that it was before the ’50s. I graduated from college when I was 20. To get enough money to finish college I went into the ROTC and I was an officer in the Air Force before I could by a drink. However, the American military was just beginning to open up to minorities. I looked like I was about 15 at the time. I got chased by lynch mobs because people had never seen a black officer before and they thought I was imitating someone. In the Air Force, I had ended up on one of these secret jet bombers that only carried three people. I was the only person of color in the squadron and as a person of color and the navigator of the plane, I had to learn astronomy and that’s how I used astronomy. Plus, my last name is Van Peebles and that sounded Dutch.

How did the collaboration with the Heliocentrics come about?

A friend had seen some of the work and he had met with The Heliocentrics who I did not know. Now, even at this stage of the game, I haven’t met one of The Heliocentrics in the flesh. But we had no problem because they allowed me the fluidity to do my thing. Eothen “Egon” Alapatt [from Now-Again Records] who put together the whole thing is terrific. He’s 100 percent the reason that we’re doing this.

The album’s message is a very positive, life-affirming one. What was the inspiration for the whole story of The Last Transmission?

The Heliocentrics had the idea of what they wanted the story to be about. They couldn’t have come up with anything more up my alley. [Laughs heartily] They didn’t know the past that I had, as a navigator and flying at extremely high altitudes in secret jet bombers. These planes flew for 14 hours and we didn’t land for gas. There are things that run through your mind a thousand times when you’re flying. One day we were getting ready to fly and a lieutenant told me he wanted to take my place because he needed some flying time. Two hours later I hear this thump and it was the plane crashing right outside my condo and everybody was killed. That could have been me if someone hadn’t taken my place. The important part of that story is I’m a very cheerful character. Wouldn’t you be if you managed to dodge a bullet like that?

Malcolm Catto of the Heliocentrics calls this a defining work. How does this collaboration differ from your other work?

In essence pretty much the same. I know what I want and I do it. [Laughs] The guys were nice and they sent me the material and I worked with it. It couldn’t have been more perfect because that’s what I’m used to. I found them fine, we could talk about things, we could discuss the reason here and the reason there. I hope it’s going to be very big. The Heliocentrics were very much involved with their work but it wasn’t about showing off. I feel that I made the guys feel at ease and we could just work together. It was right up my alley given some of the situations that had happened and so I went back and forth with them and I’ve never had a more enjoyable time in my life.

Will you be touring this work?

I’m always out and about. Last week I was in Frankfurt and after that I was in Atlanta. So I get around a bit. It would be fine with me.

Why do you think that in this age of digital video’s availability and the internet that there aren’t more political, individualist films like Sweetback?

I have no idea. I work from a slightly different way. I’m pretty much a loner, that’s not good bad, or indifferent. With Sweetback, only two theaters in the United States would show it but I thought it was what the public wanted. My public, the minority public. With Sweetback, I had the idea of bringing the album out first because I had no other way. I had no money. Once the black community saw this and people started pouring, in that changed everything. I also insisted that Sweetback be shown as a single feature and black films were shown as double features, even Sidney Poitier’s films. I was told that “Your people won’t go see this kind of film,” and I said, “How do you know?” If you give people something, they want they’ll come and see it.