In his own words, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, who died at 89, was “the Rosa Parks of the industry.” He was one of the few African-American directors who moved into the Hollywood studio system when, in 1970, Columbia awarded him a contract for three films. But Columbia resisted the incendiary plot of its next project, about a black con artist who kills white police officers and escapes with impunity, so Van Peebles borrowed $ 50,000 from actor Bill Cosby, raised an additional $ 150,000 and launched a independent production as a screenwriter. , director, producer, editor, composer and lead actor.
Filmed guerilla-style for 19 days, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) was a huge commercial success and effectively launched the blaxploitation genre, which gave black actors an unprecedented variety of lead roles. However, Van Peebles was ambivalent about the genre, believing that he often left out the political motives of his own film. It was a retaliation against Hollywood’s predetermined ways of characterizing blacks: silent servitude or the majestic mold of Sidney Poitier. The opening sequence lists the top stars as “the black community.”
In the first scene, a boy loses his virginity to a sex worker. The boy is Sweetback, played in adulthood in the rest of the film by Van Peebles, and in this prelude by Van Peebles’ 13-year-old son Mario. (More than 30 years later, Mario directed Baadasssss !, on the making of his father’s classic, with Mario playing Melvin.) Melvin took on the role of Sweetback in his own movie because he claimed that no actor was interested in a character who barely speaks. a dozen words (mostly expletives) and he makes a living performing sex acts.
When Sweetback witnesses the assault of a black man by racist white cops, he attacks them and flees. The longest-lasting images in the film are of Van Peebles running around, sporting gold flares, a billowing black shirt, and a drooping mustache. The sequences are visually and sonically inventive: there are freeze frames, psychedelic colors, overlapping images, and a pulsing jazz-funk undertone.
When Van Peebles came to promote the film, he provided radio stations with his own infectious musical composition. The film’s soundtrack, performed by Earth, Wind and Fire, was released by Stax Records. When the film was assigned a prohibitive X rating, Van Peebles printed T-shirts that read “Rated X by an all-white jury,” garnered local support, had the film shown in community theaters and makeshift venues, and practically brought it to theaters. .
He had learned the art of the hustle and bustle from his father, a tailor who had a store on the south side of Chicago, where Melvin, the son of Marion and Edwin Peebles, was born. (Melvin added “Van” to his name when he moved to Holland in his early 20s.) At the age of 10, he was working the cash register at his father’s store and selling old clothes on the streets. He attended Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Illinois, and graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953 with a BA in English.
He joined the US Air Force, served as a navigator and bomber in the Strategic Air Command, and married a German photographer, Maria Marx, with whom he had two sons, Mario and Max, and a daughter, Megan. . A period spent working in San Francisco as a cable car operator inspired him to write the book The Big Heart (1957). He also painted and, drawing inspiration from Sergei Eisenstein’s Film Form essay collection, learned the basics of filmmaking.
After making a series of short films, he moved to the Netherlands, where he studied astronomy at the University of Amsterdam. He then settled in Paris and contributed cartoon strips to the satirical magazine Hara-Kiri. He wrote a handful of novels in French, including La Permission. His filmmaking was encouraged by Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française, who had screened his short films, and Van Peebles decided to adapt La Permission for his first feature film, a French production released as The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968).
A frank account of rank and race in the military, the film follows a black soldier stationed in France who is promoted and given time off before starting his new post. Haunted by the idea that he has become “Uncle Tom” to his white captain, he sets sail for Paris. Van Peebles filmed the cafes and stalls of the Left Bank in carefree documentary style. The soldier meets and dances with a white girl and manages to spend the next day with her on the beach. There, they are spotted by three white men from the base; Shocked to see the interracial couple, they report to the captain, who quickly demotes the soldier.
The film, peppered with bursts of jazz music, has more than a chill of the French New Wave, a touch of the absurd and the jaded humor and irony of the blues. In one of the most powerful sequences, the couple clumsily check into a hotel and make love in a disarming montage that incorporates imagery of wars, choirs, and racial demonstrations. The film won an award at the San Francisco film festival where, Van Peebles recalled with some glee, they were surprised to discover that the director of this French production with a Dutch voice was an African American. He then signed up to direct Watermelon Man (1970), a provocative comedy written by Herman Raucher about a racist white salesman, Jeff, who wakes up one morning to find that his skin has turned black.
The producers wanted to hire a white actor who would later appear black-faced after the transformation, but Van Peebles won the argument to use a black star (Godfrey Cambridge) who would later become “white-faced.” It also altered the original ending of the film, in which the salesman woke up to find that it had all been a bad dream; Van Peebles didn’t want to equate the life of an African American with a nightmare.
Although the film was made with some of its trademark experimental features, including color filters, it is essentially a broad national comedy, well played by Cambridge and Estelle Parsons as his long-suffering wife, Althea.
After the transformation, Jeff is met with screams of fear, open suspicion, and hostility. If the movie showed America’s inequalities to laugh at, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was made with anger and defiance. Despite demonstrating Van Peebles’ box office influence (Sweetback made more than $ 10 million in 1971), he lost his contract with Columbia and earned him a reputation as a volatile talent.
By then, Van Peebles had achieved success as a musician for his albums of original proto-rap material, including Brer Soul (1968). He then turned his attention to Broadway, writing the music, book, and lyrics for a “ghetto-life” musical, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, which opened in October 1971 and lasted more than nine months. Before it closed, he opened another Broadway musical, Don’t Play Us Cheap! His book received a Tony nomination and a film version came out in 1972. In 1974, he released a new album, What the … You Mean I Can’t Sing ?, the title of which reflects his gruff humor and progression in his vocal delivery. of the lyrics spoken in previous releases.
Ten years passed before he released another album or movie, but Van Peebles kept busy in the theater. An autobiographical picaresque musical, Waltz of the Stork, opened in New York in 1982, starring him, and a couple of years later he directed a revamped puppet version of the show. The material was recycled into a 2008 film, Confessions of an Ex-Doofus Itchy-Footed Mutha, and a graphic novel.
By 1983, Van Peebles had played his most unexpected role yet: He moved from Broadway to Wall Street and became a trader on the floor of the American stock market. In 1986, he wrote a book for aspiring investors, Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market.
Meanwhile, he returned to the movies. He had a role in Robert Altman’s OC and Stiggs (1985) and appeared with Mario in Jaws: Revenge (1987), the television series Sonny Spoon, and the predominantly African-American West Posse (1993), which Mario directed.
In 1971, Huey Newton praised Sweet Sweetback’s song Baadasssss and made it a must see for the Black Panthers. In 1995, Van Peebles adapted his own novel about Newton’s radical party formation for the Mario-directed film Panther. The following year, they did Gang in Blue, about racism within the police force.
In 1998, Van Peebles wrote and narrated the documentary Classified X, an overview of black characters in American cinema. Usually nicknamed the godfather of film noir, although he preferred “the godfather of independent cinema,” he appeared more and more in documentaries, usually with his round glasses and characteristic beret, chewing on a cigar. His projects became riffs of past achievements: he and Mario published a book on working together, No Identity Crisis (1990), and appeared in The Hebrew Hammer (2003), an irreverent Jewish version of blaxploitation.
He made another French production, Le Conte du Ventre Plein (Bellyful, 2000), released shortly after being knighted of the Légion d’honneur. He also released a musical theater version of Sweetback in France in 2010.
His son Mario cast him in small roles in Redemption Road (2010), We the Party (2012) and Armed (2018), and he also appeared in Tina Gordon’s family comedy Peeples (2013).
His marriage to Maria ended in divorce in 2018. Megan died in 2006. She is survived by Mario and Max, another daughter, Marguerite, and 11 grandchildren.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism