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Criterion’s Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films is the Story of a Cinematic Legend

There are times when the action coincides with the event to devastating levels. On September 22, 2021, director, actor, composer, playwright, and novelist Melvin Van Peebles passed away at age 89. On the that day, I was halfway through watching the latest Criterion box set, “Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films,” a compilation of his first three shorts (“Three Pickup Men for Herrick,” “Sunlight,” and “Les cinq cent”), his first four feature films, and a bevvy of interviews with the filmmaker, critics, and his son Mario Van Peebles

When I heard the news about the icon’s death, I pressed pause on an interview between Mario and film critic Elvis Mitchell, and when I returned from the aftershock of the news, I continued watching, listening to Mario speak about how much his father meant to him as a filmmaker, mentor, and dad. It’s then I realized that this excellent box set, which charts the life of a generational talent who ushered in a new cinema, a new genre, Blaxploitation, and altered the perception of the impact a Black-made film could make, financially and artistically, was an unintentional eulogy given by a son to his father. Seen through the lens of Mario, this touching tribute to Van Peebles is an affecting, comprehensive greatest hits that tells the full story of a cinematic legend. Film by film: 

“The Story of a Three-Day Pass”

If one watches the three Van Peebles shorts included on the box set, they’ll get a sense of the influences that fed into his debut feature, “The Story of a Three-Day Pass.” His early work moved with the energy of Oscar Micheaux, John Cassavetes, and the French New Wave. Those schools informed his visual vocabulary. But even earlier than that, his three-and-a-half years in the Air Force provided the impetus for his jump to features. 

In 1967, Van Peebles adapted “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” from his own French-written novel La Permission. Here, Turner (Harry Baird), an officer in the army stationed in France, is promoted and given leave. Once away at a bar, he meets a French woman named Miriam (Nicole Berger), falls for her, and risks his new rank to be with her. Often speaking to his reflection in the mirror, Turner wonders if he’s an Uncle Tom, a Black man wanting to please his white superiors. He also questions the definitions of Blackness. In a gorgeous bar scene, Van Peebles uses a double dolly, which would become Spike Lee’s signature shot two decades later, to express the interiority of Turner: he believes a Black man should be the personification of cool. But Turner only wins over Miriam by being himself, not just monolithic. The film is a powerful romance, demonstrating the first interests Van Peebles took in stories centering identity. 

“Watermelon Man”

If “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” covered Black identity subtly, then “Watermelon Man,” his 1970 sophomore follow-up, says the quiet part loudly. When Columbia Pictures first approached the director about the film, screenwriter Herman Raucher envisioned the premise as a Black man waking up as a white man. Van Peebles flipped that Kafkaesque idea: he wanted a white man who wakes up, one morning, as a Black guy. 

In this edgy, yet still painfully relevant film, comedian Godfrey Cambridge plays the unlikable Jeff Gerber, a racist and sexist father living in a middle-class suburb. His co-workers at the insurance agency loathe him. His horny wife Althea (Estelle Parsons) is undersexed by him. His two children think his routine of racing with the bus every morning on foot is weird too. Normally, Jeff would front a television family sitcom, but here, he’s totally unsympathetic. Van Peebles uses Jeff’s sudden turn to inspect the various microaggressions, systematic obstacles, and dangers that Black folks face, and the varied ways white people are ignorant to those travails. As with “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” the director utilizes jump cuts, fourth-wall breaks, and freeze frames with a visual vocabulary that would form the very basis of Blaxploitation.  

“Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song”

While many attribute Ossie Davis’ “Cotton Comes to Harlem” as the first Blaxploitation film, that work really provides the genre with its aesthetic setting: urban areas confronting the criminal activity ravaging their streets. Van Peebles’ groundbreaking “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song” imbues the storytelling with hyperactive violence and overt sex. Sweetback, played by the director himself, is a gigolo raised in a brothel who defends an unarmed Black man from police brutality, forcing him on the run. 

With “Sweet Sweetback,” the director instills Black sexual prowess as a form of Black empowerment and liberation. Sweetback fornicates with the white girlfriend of a biker gang leader in front of the gang. He beats up police officers with brass knuckles. In Craig Brewer’s “Dolemite is My Name,” a biopic starring Eddie Murphy about another Blaxploitation legend, Rudy Ray Moore, a character’s review of a film is: “This movie had no titties, no funny, and no kung fu.” “Sweet Sweetback” checks all of those boxes. Produced independently, Van Peebles’ film became the most financially successful independent film to that date. The film didn't just usher in a new genre, it threw out the myth that Black-made films weren’t moneymakers.  

“Don't Play Us Cheap”

A key, underrated portion of the director’s repertoire involved music. A composer and songwriter who gave Earth, Wind & Fire their first break by hiring them for the “Sweet Sweetback” soundtrack, Van Peebles also wrote musicals. “Don’t Play Us Cheap” was the big screen adaptation of the director’s Tony-winning play, about two demonic creatures taking human form on a Saturday-night in Harlem. The two spirits want to create conflict, but instead discover a house party where the healing effects of Black joy are in full swing. 

Van Peebles’ songs soar in this film. While the director wasn’t much of a singer (most would describe him as terrible), to see his music put together by great performers like Esther Rolle, Mabel King, and Avon Long exemplifies his strong ability to construct indelible melodies. The film's ocean of blues and gospel soundtracks a kind of resiliency that only happens when your back feels stapled against the wall, and allows this movie to capture Black folks not merely as socio-economic talking points but as fully realized human beings with grounded troubles, soulful and never underseen. 

Supplemental Material

Each disc includes an introduction by Van Peebles, filmed several years ago, wherein he explains the relevant themes within each work, and the experiences that drew him there. Of Van Peebles’ four features in the box set only “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” has an audio commentary track. But that shortcoming is made up for by the inclusion of “Baadasssss!,” the film about Van Peebles directed by his son Mario, with audio commentary from both father and son. Mario’s conversation with Elvis Mitchell is especially gratifying. With no contemporary interviews from Van Peebles in this compilation, it’s clear Mario extensively guided the crafting of this box set. Which isn’t a problem because Mario provides insightful yet distanced assessment of his father’s important work while giving heartfelt memories of the pair together. It’s a beautiful way to discuss the life and career of an unmatched icon. A complete list of special features is below:

  • New 4K digital restorations of all four films, approved by filmmaker Mario Van Peebles, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks for “The Story of a Three Day Pass,” “Watermelon Man,” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack for “Don’t Play Us Cheap”
  • “Baadasssss!,” a 2003 fictional feature film based on director Melvin Van Peebles’s diaries from the making of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” directed by and starring his son Mario Van Peebles, with commentary by father and son
  • New conversations between Mario Van Peebles and film critic Elvis Mitchell; producer Warrington Hudlin and critic and filmmaker Nelson George; and scholars Amy Abugo Ongiri, Gerald R. Butters Jr., and Novotny Lawrence
  • Audio commentary by Melvin Van Peebles from 1997 on “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”
  • Three short films by Melvin Van Peebles: “Sunlight” (1957), “Three Pickup Men for Herrick” (1957), and “Les cinq cent balles” (1961)
  • “How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It),” a 2005 documentary on Van Peebles’s life and career
  • The Story Behind “Baadasssss!”: The Birth of Black Cinema, a 2004 featurette
  • “Melvin Van Peebles: The Real Deal,” a 2002 interview with the director on the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
  • Episodes of “Black Journal” from 1968, 1971, and 1972, on “The Story of a Three Day Pass,” “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” and “Don’t Play Us Cheap”
  • Interview from 1971 with Van Peebles on “Detroit Tubeworks”
  • French television interview from 1968 with Van Peebles and actors Harry Baird and Nicole Berger on the set of” The Story of a Three Day Pass”
  • Excerpts from a 2004 interview with Van Peebles for the Directors Guild of America Visual History Program
  • Introductions to all four films by Van Peebles
  • Trailers
  • New English subtitle translation for “The Story of a Three Day Pass”
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • PLUS: A book featuring essays by film scholars Racquel J. Gates, Allyson Nadia Field, Michael B. Gillespie, and Lisa B. Thompson
  • New cover illustration by Emory Douglas, with design by Slang Inc.

To order your copy of Criterion's Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films, click here 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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