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The US in the late 60s was a country torn apart by war, both in Vietnam and on the streets. The inevitable failure of the counterculture, along with the voices of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were extinguished through assassination, though their message was not. With an undeniable tension coming to surface, black communities reached out for new spokesmen to reflect their message in music and art. In 1971 two statements sent a message which cut deep into the heart of a nation, identifying the failures of society along with suggested solutions. One was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, an album of music which carried a thread of peace and hope, a realism that the hippy-dream could never realise. The second was a movie, made independently by the black filmmaker, writer and artist Melvin Van Peebles titled Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song gave us all the answers we needed. This was an example of how to make a film” – Spike Lee
While living in Paris after his time in the Air Force, Melvin Van Peebles wrote several French language novels. La Permission (1967) was his first to make it to the big screen. In 1970 he released his first Hollywood picture Watermelon Man. This successful comedy was about racial bigotry. The plot followed white bigoted insurance salesman, Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge), who wakes up one morning to discover his skin has become black. As subversive as its premise was, this did not stop the movie becoming a financial success. As a result, Columbia Pictures offered Van Peebles a three movie deal, which he turned down. Watermelon Man would remain his only large studio offering, as he switched his attention to independent films, and pet projects to roil the establishment.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is fueled by anger, sex and violence. It was produced independently, using mostly Van Peebles’ own finances and a host of non-professional actors, and studio technicians. The movie follows the exploits of Sweet Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles), an orphan who grows up in a brothel and in adulthood becomes a sex worker. Sweet Sweetback is framed and arrested for murder, and as the white police officers take him away they also arrest a Black Panther (Hubert Scales).
Sweetback escapes custody by beating the policemen into a coma, using his handcuffs as ‘knuckle dusters’ when they stopped to beat the Black Panther activist. From here the film becomes the dramatic tale of a man on the run, refused help from all sectors of society, but able to use his sexual prowess to gain notoriety in the ghettos. His saviors, in a twist, are the women he encounters, as Sweetback becomes the sexual object of attention throughout the movie. The film concludes as he makes his way across the Mexican border, swearing to return for further revenge. Unlike so many other movies of the era, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song portrayed the African American as the anti-hero, who murders and evades captivity but finds the freedom to be a man free of the law.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song‘s impact on cinema and society was monumental. The movie became an induction tool for the Black Panther movement in which they could project their aesthetic. Its legacy was given further mileage as the financial success of Sweet Sweetback’s revealed what was possible within the untapped African American audiences of the day. This led to the rise of the Blaxploitation era of 70’s filmmaking, with outings such as Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972) dominating and crossing over to white audiences. It is also important to note the lack of money Melvin Van Peebles had to advertise the film, instead releasing its soundtrack by Earth, Wind & Fire ahead of time to generate publicity.
Surprisingly Van Peebles’ next outing was a comedy-musical, Don’t Play Us Cheap (1973), based on his own novel Harlem Party. It followed two mischievous devil-angels determined to break up a party in Harlem. This tale of imps Brother Dave (Avon Long) and Trinity (Joe Keyes Jnr) received a small release, even though it had a run on Broadway the previous year. This would also be Melvin’s last film for 16 years until a joint venture with his son, Mario Van Peebles. That was Identity Thief, a 1989 straight-to-video comedy that follows a rapper who has to share his body with the soul of a dead fashion designer.
Melvin’s writing eventually took over. Theatre works such as his 1973 one-man play Out There by Your Lonesome dominated his catalogue. He also constantly wrote screenplays, however, and in 1995 he played his part in highlighting the work of the Black Panther movement in Panther. Produced and directed by his son, Mario, this was the first movie to look into the unofficial defence group from its initial formation to its decline. The critical and commercial success based on Melvin’s novel of the same name re-awakened the initial ideals found in his early work.
Almost 50 years later, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song still holds enough controversy to remain explosive. It examines both the myth of the inexhaustible sexual energy of the African American Male and the very real racial tensions dividing a country on a knife edge. It is clever and disturbing as well as a highly revolutionary piece of 20th century cinema.