There is much to learn from Melvin Van Peebles, writer, director, and star of the groundbreaking independent film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Lessons in conviction, fortitude, and perseverance are but a few teachings Van Peebles can tender. In 1970 the filmmaker-icon of the 1960s Black Power Movement set out to make a movie by and for black Americans. Turned down by every major studio, including Columbia, where he had a three-picture directing deal, Van Peebles resisted nearly every convention and set out to do everything on his terms—writing, financing, casting, hiring crew, and even marketing his project. Against unbelievable odds, Sweetback, which helped usher in the blaxploitation movement, reflects its filmmaker's vision to this day. Risking everything, Van Peebles' film not only was the top-grossing independent film of 1971, it was the biggest true "indie" at the time.
"I just got tired of looking into an empty silver screen that didn't reflect any of the folks that I knew," Van Peebles tells Back Stage West. "I thought well, let me change that. It took over 10 years to make Sweetback. I had to teach myself cinema. I had to do everything. Since there wasn't a lot of money or power involved, I had to make a utilization of the tools and things that I had in order to tell the story that I wanted to tell."
More than three decades later, Mario Van Peebles, Melvin's son, has created a revealing portrait of his pioneering father. Following in his father's footsteps and documenting Melvin's journey toward political defiance through cinema, the younger Van Peebles directs and stars as Melvin in Baadasssss!, based on his father's book, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which tells of the making of the 1971 picture. The book became a bestseller, has been translated into several languages, and is now standard reading in many university film classes.
"I went to stay with my father in the summer of 1970 here in L.A.," says Mario at a recent press conference for Baadasssss!, opening in limited release this week. "He had an office over on Gordon and was working on a new movie called Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Little did I know that it was not only going to be the summer that changed the cinematic landscape of America forever, but also the summer that I would get to know my dad. I'd come to have a different understanding of him in a big way."
It's hard to comprehend the significance of what the senior Van Peebles did without understanding the political context in which he had to act. During the 1960s, race riots had broken out in cities across the U.S. The Black Panthers, with a large following in deprived areas of the big cities, were advocating militant actions. During this time the non-violent civil rights movement, spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King, was making measured gains. Cinematically, Hollywood for years had been acting with impunity, misrepresenting people of color. Although Sidney Poitier's films suggested that it was possible for blacks to be accepted into white American society, the reality for many blacks was discordantly different. In spite of Poitier's positive influence, his films did not mirror life for the black majority at that time.
Sweetback was vicious, uncompromising, and deemed inaccessible to whites. Unable to show the film in most theatres, Melvin persuaded a few black cinema houses in Detroit, San Francisco, and New York to screen it. The response was overwhelming. People lined up by the hundreds to see what was basically the tale of a promiscuous, righteous brother's vendetta against "The Man."
Mario admits that not only did his father make the first revolutionary "black power flick" but also that his modus operandi was revolutionary as well. Says Mario, "It's like my father thought he was the Statue of Liberty for disenfranchised wannabe filmmakers. Give me your tired, your hungry, your black, Hispanic, your hippies, women, and porn makers, and they shall be my crew. Take all the folks that had been left out for so long, the cinematically disempowered, and let them come learn to control their own imagery. Of course his goal of a 50 percent minority crew would have been an impossibility if he did Sweetback under union [contracts]. He took a chance of going non-union by making Sweetback, under the guise of a black porno film. The union left smut films alone." Melvin also eluded creditors, and had to bail out his camera crew after its members were arrested because a white cop decided "a bunch of Negroes and hippies couldn't have come by the camera equipment honestly." In the face of death threats and temporarily losing sight in one eye, Melvin gathered a multiracial crew and finished the film, which also included music from the up-and-coming band Earth, Wind, and Fire.
Continues Mario, "I think that when you grow up seeing your dad willing to put himself in harm's way so that women and minorities—Hispanics, Asians, black and white folks—can work together on a set, you look at wealth not just in economic terms. I got to see what he was willing to stand for and be proud of that. Suddenly it's not just enough to make some 'bling bling' and have a 'nice crib.' If you are going to do something, you've got to do something that means something, something that makes a statement—hopefully a positive statement that affects you."
It may seem all but inevitable that the younger Van Peebles would follow in his father's footsteps and forge a career in entertainment. After all, he began his career as the young boy in the infamous opening scene of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. In addition to his long and distinguished acting career, Mario has directed numerous television shows, including 21 Jump Street and Robbery Homicide Division, and the feature films Panther, New Jack City, and Posse. "I knew that I wanted to do this, and what was wonderful was, I had a mother who took me around to plays, helped me learn lines, and showed me that mountain. And I had a father to teach me how to climb it," says Mario.
Was the elder Van Peebles ever wary of his son's career choice? "No, of course not. You know, I always say, 'There's no Santa Claus.' We're all sitting in front of the chimney with our stockings. What's wrong with that picture? This is what he wants to do. I said, 'OK. Fine.' That's why it's called work. That's why it's called a J-O-B. We really don't have to shine any multi-rose light on this business. It's work."
This nothing-comes-easy sentiment is vividly illustrated in Mario's tribute to his father's notable movie achievement. More important, Baadasssss! unsentimentally pays tribute to all filmmakers who have held true to their own artistic vision. Says Mario, "When I sent studios the Baadasssss! [script] to see if they wanted to give me money to make this thing comfortably, they sent me notes that would have made Baadasssss! this commercialized, pasteurized film. What they said was, 'Make the film more for a hip festival audience, i.e. more Boogie Night-ish. Make it for a white audience.' They didn't feel that a complex character like this would work if he were of color. Then the studios said, 'If you're going to go with black folks in it, what black folks want to see is hip-hop comedies. So make some soul-on-a-boat version of it and put some ghetto-isms in it. Then they'll come.' I said, 'Well, I'm not dissing those movies, but that's not this movie.' They said it was too political. It was too funny. Actually it was too dramatic and too funny. 'You've got to make Melvin Van Peebles more likeable. What if we don't like him?'
"So in responding to those notes I thought, 'Wait a minute, this brother is from the south side of Chicago. He speaks French and Dutch. He has never been on crack. Never been in jail. Too short to play basketball and too nervous to steal. He is just too smart to do anything stupid. He's a filmmaker and he works with people of all colors. He has a multiracial component to his life and his spirit goes beyond racial lines. I'm not going to marginalize his spirit. I'll do the film independently. I'll do it through my little company, MVP Filmz. Then [filmmaker] Michael Mann came forward and said, 'Hey, I saw Sweetback on my first dates with my wife and we're still married. I'm down as your executive producer, but you've got to take me to dinner. Ossie Davis called up and said, 'I'm down.' I told him that I had no hotel money right now. He said, 'Clean up your house.' He came out and stayed with me. I made Baadasssss! in 18 days. I got folks like John Singleton, [Bill] Cosby, Nia Long, Joy Bryant, and David Alan Grier—people who were saying, 'I'm involved for the nutritional value, not the check.' I was able, then, as a filmmaker, to be freed up artistically. Some folks' visions will be hip-hop comedies, but you also have to understand that when you make those movies, you get the notes from the studios, just like I did. I just didn't take them."
The elder Van Peebles is quick to point out that you can't do a movie in 18 days without "some skills." "Learn your craft," he advises. Adds Mario, "I've been directing for 17 years, I've been acting for 20, writing for 10, and producing for 10. You know what I mean? I've been doing that individually, and I brought them all to bear in this project, but I've prepared with each. It was something I had to build up to. What I like about Baadasssss! for anyone interested in the arts—filmmaking, music, all of those things—is it's like a how-to movie. People come out thinking, 'Damn, my struggle is not that dissimilar from what Melvin Van Peebles had to go through.' He lays that paradigm down." BSW