The year was 1967. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight boxing title for refusing induction into the military. Jimi Hendrix torched his guitar at the Monterey International Pop Festival. The tempestuous saxophone of John Coltrane was forever silenced. Race riots swept across America. “Black” replaced “Negro” as a politically correct ethnic designation. Thurgood Marshall became the first black to be seated on the U.S. Supreme Court. And Sidney Poitier starred in movies about murder in a redneck Southern town (In the Heat of the Night) and interracial marriage (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner).
That was also the year that film director Melvin Van Peebles made his provocative debut with The Story of a Three-Day Pass, which chronicled the love affair of a black American soldier and a white woman in Paris. The film was selected as the French entry in the San Francisco Film Festival and won its Critics Choice Award. Van Peebles was then invited into the inner sanctum of mainstream Hollywood. He prodded tender nerves again in 1970 with Watermelon Man, in which a white bigoted insurance salesman (played with robust energy and indignation by Godfrey Cambridge) turns black overnight. The premise was played as a seriocomic calamity, and Van Peebles landed a three-picture deal at Columbia.
But Van Peebles held a grudge against Hollywood for its depiction of blacks in film and did not want to become the industry’s “token niggerologist.” In a sort of backlash against his own Watermelon Man, he set out to prove that being black is not an inherent nightmare and to create a hero for the economically strapped black masses. He hunkered down in his home, drank and penned Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the story of an inner-city hustler who attacks two cops when they viciously beat a young black revolutionary and who then must flee for his life. He’s elevated into ghetto folklore as “a street brother just getting The Man’s foot out of his ass.”
The 1971 film was a low-budget, sleazy and polarizing affair that was damned by many critics, displeased black nationalists and was given a triple-X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America for its graphic sex, full-frontal nudity, violence and language. It also became the highest-grossing independent film of its day, was designated as mandatory viewing by all chapters of the Black Panther Party and earned Melvin Van Peebles the title of the godfather of blaxploitation cinema.
Melvin wrote a candid, irreverent book about his struggle to get the flick made. His son Mario now nearly duplicates his father’s footsteps as producer, director, writer and star (he plays his own daddy) as he transforms that text into the funky, soulful and unapologetically carnal Baadasssss! Mario’s homage to and roadmap of Sweetback’s evolution captures the feel, excesses and nuances of the 1970s. And it vividly revisits Melvin’s four-point plan to not thematically cop out, to make a film that looks just as good as its studio competition, to entertain and to establish a living workshop where production veterans both work with and train neophyte actors and technicians.
Baadasssss! is the story of obsession, focus, arrogance, insecurity and passion. It is about a man who gambles his sanity, his health (he literally works himself blind in one eye), the wellbeing of his family (Melvin cast 13-year-old Mario in the opening scene in which Sweetback loses his virginity), his reputation, his own money and his kid’s college funds on a dream and financial crap shoot. It’s a tale of rejection (James Cagney didn’t get away with killing cops, Melvin is told, even if they were dirty), strategy (Melvin pretends to shoot a porno film to circumvent the use of expensive union members) and the courtship of flaky money men.
Mario does an excellent job of letting Melvin and his movie speak for themselves without editorializing. Melvin wanted to be a success. And the audience is allowed to judge for itself whether he also truly attempted to raise black consciousness or if he “just started to believe [his] own bullshit.” Mario, like his father, also has filled the screen with “faces that Norman Rockwell never painted,” in a trial by fire that singed both Melvin’s and Mario’s lives but also turned many of the elder Van Peebles’ associates into extended family.
“We were so intent on bringing the message to the people that we never stopped to think if the people we were bringing it to wanted to hear it,” says Melvin. And Melvin’s unlikely mentor, the relentlessly wholesome Bill Cosby, stretches this statement even further: “People kept saying to follow your dream, but there’s more to it. The first thing you need to do is wake up.”