He is, perhaps, the single most important voice in post-modern minority moviemaking. Sick and tired of the way blacks were portrayed in Hollywood’s lamentable history, he set out to make his own statement about the viability of putting people of color in something other than the role of a servant or criminal. In the process, he reinvented urban cinema, starting a wave that would later be known as blaxploitation. He also gave rise to a fresh and vibrant voice – a decidedly non-Caucasian voice – within the standard cinematic ideal. And what did he get for this innovation? Was he celebrated and kept as part of the legitimate legacy of the motion picture artform? Was he rewarded with more opportunities to prove his creative and philosophical mantle? Is he currently in demand as a past master still worthy of appreciation? The answer for maverick Melvin Van Peebles is cruel and very cutting. Instead of being a celebrated star in the world of film, he’s a fading force best known almost exclusively for his usual named singular breakout hit.
Thanks to the brilliant new documentary by first time filmmaker Joe Angio, provocatively titled How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) – new to DVD from Image Entertainment – all that just might change. At the very least, individuals who only know his name because of his famous son Mario, said child’s amazing motion picture Baadasssss! or the movie that actually put Melvin on the map – 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song – will learn that there remains much more to this multitalented Renaissance rebel than a simple stint behind the camera. After spending 90 mersmerizing minutes inside his individual sphere of influence, we learn of previous careers as a French satirist, a foreign filmmaker, an unlikely Tinsel Town token, a self-made musician, self taught poet, pilot, Broadway showman, impresario, porn lover, stock trader, and cabaret act. Easily a Jack-of-all-Trades and a master of many, Melvin made his name by breaking the rules and challenging convention. Sometimes, he even ignored logic and common sense to achieve his amplified ambitions.
Now nearly 75 – and looking as fierce and determined as ever – this international icon to grit and resolve is not necessarily looking to rest on his laurels. If anything, this glimpse into his personal and professional life is meant to breathe context into his career both as an important cinematic artist and an influential racial pioneer. Melvin is often considered the Black Panther movement of moviemaking, and when a former member of the radical black organization steps up to confirm how important Sweetback was to the party, the connection is crystal clear. Recognizing that son Mario did a remarkable job of explaining how and why said seminal blaxploitation pic became a cultural phenomenon, Watermelon doesn’t go overboard addressing the subject. Instead, it becomes part of an overall whole where one project or personal obsession becomes a piece in the neverending (and puzzling) myth of this incredibly complex man.
It would be easy to argue that Melvin is a master at undermining his own aims. After convincing the studio suits that he was the right man to make the race baiting comedy Watermelon Man (a slick satire starring Godfrey Cambridge as a white man who suddenly turns black overnight) he quickly became difficult, demanding certain creative controls while wasting whatever leverage he had. Then, when Sweetback went on to change the face of ethnic filmmaking, he basically gave up on cinema, arguing that he only wanted to make the movies ‘he felt like’ making. In truth, his success without the studio saw the industry purposefully avoid him. When his musical muse no longer spoke (Melvin’s sing-speak style is often cited, along with the equally influential Last Poets, as the precursor to rap), he went on to write shows for the Great White Way. Never one to compromise, his confrontational efforts were respected and praised, but acted like box office poison to the typically snobby New York theater crowd.
Angio also argues that Melvin occasionally expected too much from those who championed his cases. While desperate and destitute in Holland (where he went after a stint in Korea as part of his ROTC scholarship commitment), he finds his short films being celebrated in France. But when a well-attended screening failed to deliver financially, he felt hurt and humiliated. It’s clear from several of the insightful interviews presented that Mr. Van Peebles has a 40 acres and a mule sized chip on his shoulder, and logically, he should. After all, as a well spoken artist who was capable of great creative leaps in any medium he choose, he had to live with the concept that skin color consistently blocked his all-important options. Whether rightly or wrongly, he chose to wear those rejections like a brash badge of dire dishonor. It made his often entertaining work seem difficult and unapproachable. It’s to this film’s massive credit that we can crawl underneath the blustery bravado to see a thoughtful performer perplexed as to the ongoing prejudice in a supposedly rational world.
He gets a lot of help in that regard. Angio has rounded up a nice selection of connected talking heads, people who can easily speak about working with, living around and admiring the man. Children and ex-lovers, colleagues and brothers in arms do their best job of backseat psychiatry, refusing to fully categorize Melvin as a troublemaker, a troubadour, or an acquired taste. Spike Lee does an astonishing job of insinuating his influence, while several French cartoonists call their former co-worker a brilliant force of nature. If Van Peebles was looking for accolades, he certainly finds them throughout the film. But there is also a subtext of skepticism in Watermelon that really works to broaden the subjective scope. While trying to record a new song, we see Melvin in the studio. Cursing up a storm and chomping on his ever-present cigar, he is part egotist, part asshole, and all intensity. He wants to get things right, and doesn’t want to waste time goofing off.
In fact, one could argue that this enigmatic individual has been like an imaginative shark, constantly moving forward and around to avoid the death of his talent – or capture by the roving band of great white hunters looking to land him. It was a clear theme in Sweetback, and it runs like a thread throughout the entire documentary. We even see the spry septuagenarian on his morning jog, bounding around Manhattan like a man several decades younger. Similarly, during a shoot on his last full length feature Bellyful (2000), we witness Melvin rushing from set up to set up, hoping to complete his filming before some unseen force decides to close him down. Whether he is standing on the stage delivering a dopey version of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” or poised in the trading pit, battling it out with other stock exchange employees, Melvin always looks like a criminal about to get caught. He’s dead convinced that somehow the Establishment will eventually find him guilty and throw the karmic book at him.
Thankfully, Angio was around to catch him before he finally went AWOL, and while the director takes some strange stylistic chances (he wraps up Melvin’s early life as a young Chicago geek and angry ex-patriot in a surreal Citizen Kane inspired mock newsreel), he ends up delivering a nicely rounded portrait of the man. Certainly this is a slightly single-minded love letter, a blemish and all attempt at reestablishing Van Peebles name as part of the legitimate history of film. But all is not kid glove and kisses. Mario himself makes a strong case for his continued exile simply be being irascible and unshakable in his convictions and beliefs. As a matter of fact, he may be the only remaining legitimate element of the counterculture underground left standing some 40 years after the fact.
It’s great to see someone finally stepping up and giving this American original the due he so richly deserves. There is a wealth of information in How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) as well as a lot of serious and substantive food for thought. The impression one takes away from this amazingly dense documentary is that, given a different Hollywood mentality – say the pro-auteur era we are currently residing in – Van Peebles would be more important than Gordon Parks, more successful than John Singleton, and more pissed off than Spike Lee. While he was indeed his own worst enemy, he also never shirked on his perceived responsibilities or sold out to a situation that saw nothing in him but stereotypes. Like the title argues, Melvin wanted to embrace his heritage and be respected for it. He desired consideration for his basic humanity, not for what he could bring to the bottom line. He never really struggled, but he never really succeeded either. This highly recommended documentary should stand as the start of his eventual reward.