Melvin Van Peebles, Godfather of Black Cinema, Dies at 89

He directed 'Watermelon Man,' did everything on 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song' and wrote a pair of Broadway musicals.

Melvin Van Peebles, the pioneering African American auteur behind the 1970s films Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, has died. He was 89.

Van Peebles, the father of actor-director Mario Van Peebles, died Tuesday night at his home in Manhattan. His family, The Criterion Collection and Janus Films announced his death in a statement.

“In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music,” the statement read. “His work continues to be essential and is being celebrated at the New York Film Festival this weekend with a 50th anniversary screening of his landmark film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song; a Criterion Collection box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films, next week; and a revival of his play Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, slated for a return to Broadway next year.”

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Considered by many to be the godfather of modern Black cinema, Van Peebles was an influential link to a younger generation of African American filmmakers that includes Spike Lee and John Singleton. The Chicago native also was a novelist, theater impresario, songwriter, musician and painter.

Van Peebles was living in Paris when the first feature he wrote and directed, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, attracted attention and put him on the radar at Columbia Pictures. The studio selected him to direct Watermelon Man (1970), a racial satire that starred Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber, a bigoted white insurance salesman who goes to the bathroom in his suburban home in the middle of the night and discovers he’s Black. Very few African Americans were directing in Hollywood at the time.

On the strength of that movie’s success, Columbia offered Van Peebles a three-picture deal but wanted no part of his next project, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). Helped by a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby, he wrote, directed, produced, scored and edited the renegade film while starring as its antihero, a ladies man with superhero lovemaking abilities who battles the corrupt white establishment in Los Angeles.

Van Peebles made Sweetback in 19 days for a reported $500,000. It opened in only two venues, in Atlanta and Detroit, but fueled by strong word-of-mouth from working-class African Americans and a soundtrack of music performed by Earth, Wind & Fire, the picture raked in more than $10 million, making it the highest-grossing independent film in history at the time. (The opening credits note that the star of the film is “The Black Community.”)

In a 1997 book about the movie, Mario notes in the introduction that his father “was forced to self-finance, constantly on the brink of ruin, his crew got arrested and jailed, death threats, and yet [at first] he refused to submit his film to the all-white MPAA ratings board for approval. The film then received an X rating. My dad, true to form, printed T-shirts that read, ‘Rated X … By an All-White Jury,’ and made it part of his marketing campaign.”

The New York Times called Van Peebles “the first Black man in show business to beat the white man at his own game,” and Sweetback ushered in the blaxploitation era in Hollywood. (Before his film, Shaft was going to be about a white detective, Van Peebles said.)

After Sweetback, Van Peebles brought Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, his musical about Black urban life, to Broadway and received Tony nominations for best book and best original score in 1972. A year later, he received another book nom for Don’t Play Us Cheap!, centering on a devil who attempts to break up a party in Harlem. The two musicals garnered nine Tony noms in all.

Van Peebles also directed a 1973 film version of Don’t Play Us Cheap! as well as the action-comedy Identity Crisis (1989), which starred his son. He helmed and appeared with Mario in Posse (1993), a Western about African-American soldiers who mutiny against their racist white officer, and contributed a song, “Cruel Jim Crow,” to that movie.

Van Peebles had a writing credit on the stock-car biopic Greased Lightning (1977), starring Richard Pryor, and adapted his novel about the growth of the Black Panther Party into a 1995 movie, Panther, that was directed by his son.

In 2003, he was portrayed by Mario in Baadasssss (2003), a son’s homage to his dad. And two years later, Van Peebles was the subject of a documentary, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It).

The son of a tailor, Melvin Peebles was born on Aug. 21, 1932. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan in 1953 with a degree in literature, served for nearly four years in the U.S. Air Force and married a German woman. After his discharge, he worked as a portrait painter in Mexico, then moved to San Francisco, where he ran cable cars.

Van Peebles also made three short films, beginning with the slice-of-life Three Pickup Men for Herrick (1957), which he hoped would serve as his calling card into the motion-picture industry. But when he was unable to find directorial work in L.A., he, his wife and their children, Megan and Mario, moved to Europe. In Holland, he studied with the Dutch National Theatre, did some acting and added the “Van” to his last name.

After his marriage dissolved, Van Peebles headed to Paris, where he authored five novels and wrote and directed his first feature, La permission, an adaptation of his novel about a love affair between an African American soldier and a French woman. It won acclaim in Europe, was retitled The Story of a Three-Day Pass for U.S. audiences and chosen as the French entry for the San Francisco Film Festival in 1967.

It was well-received by critics and festivalgoers, but few knew that the filmmaker behind Three-Day Pass was American and Black.

In a 2014 interview, Van Peebles said he insisted that the star of Watermelon Man be a Black actor (the character is only white in the first 20 minutes of the movie). “You think a white guy can play Black but a Black guy can’t play white?” he asked Columbia execs.

He also changed the ending of Herman Raucher’s original script, which has the bigot waking up from a nightmare and back as a white guy. “Being Black is not going to be a bad dream,” he said. Van Peebles did promise the producers that he would film the original ending as well, giving them a choice, but then “forgot” to do that.

A close-up of Cambridge’s butt is the first sign that informs the audience that something crazy has happened to Jeff Gerber overnight.

Van Peebles also did the music for the movie and appears in a cameo as a sign painter when Gerber opens his own business.

To get the owners — twin brothers — of the Detroit theater to open Sweetback, Van Peebles bet them a new suit, certain that his film would bring in more money than the movie they had at the time. (He won.)

Before a screening of the film in April 2018 at the TCM Classic Film Festival, Van Peebles said, “I haven’t had this much fun with clothes on in many years.”

Van Peebles also was in such films as Robert Atman’s O.C. and Stiggs (1985), Jaws: The Revenge (1987), Reginald Hudlin’s Boomerang (1992), Last Action Hero (1993), The Hebrew Hammer (2003) and Peeples (2013). On television, he starred with Mario on the short-lived Stephen J. Cannell NBC comedy Sonny Spoon and appeared on All My Children, In the Heat of the Night, Living Single and Girlfriends.

Van Peebles won a Daytime Emmy and a Humanitas Prize in 1987 for writing an episode of a CBS Schoolbreak Special, “The Day They Came to Arrest the Books.” He also was the author of Bold Money, a 1986 primer on how to trade stock options.

“Dad knew that Black images matter,” Mario said in a statement. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.