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Melvin Van Peebles, a trailblazing Black filmmaker best known for 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, died on Tuesday at the age of 89. Here, one of his sons, Mario Van Peebles, a noted filmmaker in his own right, remembers his father publicly for the first time since his death.
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20 years after Melvin made Sweetback outside the studio system, I got to make my film, New Jack City, inside the studio system, because of Melvin and other cats like Gordon [Parks] and Ossie [Davis] — but specifically because of Melvin. He made it easier for all of us who have followed.
What enabled him to go where others had not gone before was that he saw rejection as an opportunity to do better. He didn’t think you were defined by what you faced, but by how you faced it and overcame it — and he faced it and overcame it with grace. I remember he once said to me, “Son, birds are aerodynamic. They’re beautiful when they fly. They make sense. But bumblebees? They’re not aerodynamic. They’re just little fat things. But since they don’t understand aerodynamics, they fly anyway.”
Melvin wasn’t calling for “Black Power” or “Black Beauty” at the expense of any other race. “You can’t fight racism with racism,” as the Panthers said. Melvin was never about that. He was about, “Let’s put some Black Power on the screen. Let them see us now. We had Dr. King say ‘freedom by peaceful means’ and Malcolm say ‘freedom by any means,’ but they killed them both.”
Everything and everyone said to Melvin, “You can’t do this. You need a producer. You need the financial backing of a big studio. Etcetera.” And he just said, “Fuck it. Let me do it my way.” Sweetback became the top-grossing independent film ever up to its time, making something like $15 million at a dollar a ticket. That’s probably $150 million now. And yet in that book about indie filmmaking in the ’70s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Melvin isn’t even mentioned. It’s like, Ryan Seacrest has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but Melvin does not. No disrespect to Ryan Seacrest, but what the fuck, yo?
Sweetback made being a revolutionary hip. After that, Hollywood had a movie written by two white guys — perfectly nice guys — called Shaft. And then they saw that Melvin made a hit with his movie, so they rewrote their movie in blackface. And then after that came Superfly. Sweetback went up against the system, against the status quo, against the man, right? Shaft made working with the man hip. And Superfly made dealing drugs against your own people — poisoning your own people for the man — hip. What the Panthers posited was that once the system — the studios — got hold of the formula, they would take the revolutionary core out of the cake. They would leave the icing — a nice empowered Black character, cool clothes, great music — but slowly they would make him more cartoony, more goofy and take the revolutionary core out of it.
Just like rap. It started out with Melvin doing Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death on Broadway and Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets saying, “The revolution will not be televised.” But once the money guys got hold of it, it devolved into bitches and gold and gin and juice, without a message. It still has the beat, the rhythm and the image. But it lost the political ideology.
What a lot of people don’t know about Melvin was how kind he was. I remember going in my teens with him and my sister to a bar mitzvah that we were invited to. We didn’t really know what it was, but we went, and at the party the kids were standing around and seemed rather shy, so my sister and I — we looked like the Jacksons with our big fros — got on the dance floor and killed it. Everyone started clapping and watching us. Afterwards, my dad pulled us aside and said, “I’m really disappointed in you guys.” We asked why. He said, “The way you dance is not inviting others to join you. It’s saying, ‘We’re too cool for school and just witness it, but don’t join it.’ And if you don’t bring out the beauty in others, you’ll never understand the beauty of that older gentleman right there, who was in Auschwitz, or of that young girl over there, or of that little Asian guy over there. If you don’t bring out the beauty in others, you’re going to miss out on so much in life.” So we went back out on that dance floor, and my sister got that older fellow up, and I got the little girl up and we got everybody up. And one of those kids wound up becoming a dear friend and producing a movie with me years later.
There’s an old saying that “if we don’t learn to live together as brothers and sisters, we are going to perish together as fools.” As soon as he could make his movies independently, my father got folks to work together behind the camera and in front of the camera in harmony — people who were hippies, from the porn industry, students, Black, Latino, gay, straight, you name it. And then, slowly, Hollywood began to follow suit. Hollywood is still predominantly white male, but it’s more integrated than ever before.
I’m really happy that Criterion is about to release a collection of four of Melvin’s major films — Sweetback, Don’t Play Us Cheap, Watermelon Man and Three-Day Pass — with his early shorts, some interviews and my film Baadasssss as bonuses. The guy who did the artwork for the Panthers, Emory Douglas, did the artwork for the cover of the box, so the box itself is sort of a collector’s item. It’s just a really good collection and a nice way for new people to discover what Melvin was all about.
At the end of Sweetback, Melvin literally put on the screen, “Watch out. A Baad Asssss N— is coming back to collect some dues…” Years later, when I did Baadasssss, my sort of homage to him in which I played him, this reporter said to him, “Well, you said ‘Baad Asssss N— is coming back to collect some dues…'” And he said, “He did — he’s my son.”
He was a pioneer, a maverick and one cool cat.
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