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I met Melvin Van Peebles, who died Tuesday at 89, at the Morning Star diner in New York City in March 1998. For seven years up to that point, I’d harbored a dream of making a documentary on his remarkable life, assembling a dossier on him thicker than the New York City phone book — in which he, incidentally, was listed. My producer and longtime friend, Michael Solomon, had brokered the breakfast meeting. They had become friends after Michael cajoled Melvin into participating in various film festivals he consulted for. Since no one was willing to fund the film without a commitment from Melvin, this was my one chance to convince him why I — a relative nobody with only two short docs under my belt — should be the one to tell his story.
I was a nervous wreck.
After shaking Melvin’s hand and taking my seat across the table from him, I cleared my throat before launching into my well-rehearsed pitch. “So, Mel — ”
He cut me off, saying, “I read your proposal. Michael says good things about you. He’s always had my back, so that’s good enough for me. I’ll do your film.” And that was it. Thus began a years-long odyssey during which I gained much more than a film subject; I gained a friend.
Melvin was notorious for not suffering fools gladly, so I entered this relationship cautiously, wanting to keep my journalistic distance while also working to gain his trust. Save for the one time he chewed me out — I stepped into his shot while he was operating a consumer-grade camcorder on location in France for Bellyful (my bad) — Melvin was a delight to work with.
He would be generous with his time while also being maddeningly opaque about his schedule and not forthcoming about material that would be useful in telling his story. A few years into shooting, I caught a glimpse of his bedroom closet, filled floor to ceiling with shelves containing VHS tapes of every TV appearance, theater performance and, basically, everything he’s ever been recorded doing.
“Melvin, were you planning to tell me about these?”
“You never asked!”
The Morning Star became our go-to spot. As it was around the corner from his Upper West Side apartment, Melvin received a hero’s welcome whenever he entered. Even more impressive was the reaction he solicited from tourists and passers-by, all of whom — black, white, young, old, male (and especially) female — seemed to know him. There was the one woman who did an about-face when she recognized him through the window. Melvin beckoned her inside to join us and coaxed out her story — turns out she had left the convent — then, in a scene I’d witnessed many times before yet which never failed to startle me, made a date for later. (Melvin sheepishly revealed the next day what he and the ex-nun got up to.) Or the time we were crossing 57th Street en route to the diner, when a stranger literally asked, “Sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall,” and Melvin — gave him the directions. When we reached the corner, he burst out laughing, admitting he flubbed it, and went on to explain the French saying l’esprit d’escalier — the wit of the staircase, or the thing you wished you’d said in the moment.
Melvin had a seemingly endless reservoir of bon mots and aphorisms, which he’d drop nonchalantly into conversation and public appearances. He was a sage of the people. His empathy for common folk was a trait he cultivated selling unclaimed clothes for his tailor father on the south side of Chicago, honed in San Francisco while working as a brakeman on cable cars (an experience he parlayed into the delightful photo essay The Big Heart) and found its full expression in France, where he became a devotee of Aristide Bruant, the French cabaret singer who celebrated prisoners, prostitutes and others on the bottom of the social strata. It was something Melvin would carry through in his writing, music, films and day-to-day life — giving voice to voiceless people.
This quality is best exemplified in his films, where he is rightfully recognized as the godfather of modern black cinema. People he influenced, such as Warrington Hudlin, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins and, of course, his son Mario, will undoubtedly have plenty to say on this — and can express it much more eloquently than me — which is why I always return to the lesser-known accomplishments of Melvin’s life, the things that made me realize he was so much more than the medium for which he’s best known.
When I reflect on Melvin’s life, I’m invariably drawn to his unfettered belief in himself: Why can’t I study astronomy in Holland? Why can’t I write novels in France (in French)? Why can’t I record proto-rap albums while inventing my own system of musical notation? Why can’t I stage a Broadway musical (or two, simultaneously)? Why can’t I become an options trader on Wall Street — in my 50s? Why can’t I run a marathon? (Also, for the first time, in his 50s.) It’s a life that would seem beyond belief if it were not all true. In fact, one of my indelible memories is when my film, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) — its title comes from an unpublished essay Melvin wrote criticizing the prevailing wisdom among black leaders on how blacks could best advance their station during the Civil Rights struggles — was screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Mario was sitting next to me and kept jabbing me in the ribs with a look of amused bewilderment on his face. When the film ended, he admitted, “I thought all those stories pops told me were bullshit, but you verified every one of them.”
Melvin breathed life into the hoary cliche You can do anything you set your mind to. On lazy mornings, when I’m guiltily hitting the snooze button for the second time, I often think of Melvin, who, with militaristic precision, had woken up hours earlier and, after his daily regimen of push-ups and sit-ups, embarked on a five-mile run. If I learned nothing else from him, I reasoned, I should try, at very least, to make my best effort to maximize the day. I always fall well short.
Melvin had been in ill health for a few years. I was fortunate enough to join a chorus of well-wishers in singing “Happy Birthday” to him on his 87th birthday two years ago, the last time I saw him. Fittingly, this year has seen a host of tributes celebrating Melvin and his accomplishments: a well-regarded re-release of his first (French) feature film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, the announcement of an upcoming Broadway revival of his musical Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death, and a long-overdue Criterion Collection box set of his first four feature films. An enthusiastic promoter of his work, Melvin liked to say, “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise!” I like to think that Melvin’s timing in leaving us — a week before the Criterion release — was just a sly wink at cementing his legacy.
Joe Angio, a documentary filmmaker and journalist, is the former editor-in-chief of Time Out New York and editor of the late Daily Dig, a site devoted to long-form journalism and short documentaries.
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