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Ahead of His Time: Melvin Van Peebles (1932-2021)

Melvin Van Peebles was a bridge between the French New Wave and Blaxploitation. His independent classic, the highest grossing self-produced film to that point, “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song,” without hyperbole, altered the course of cinematic history, proving Black movies made for Black audiences could be profitable. He gave Earth, Wind & Fire their big break. Influenced Spike Lee. And watched his own son Mario Van Peebles become a well-respected director in his own right. He was fluent in French, a celebrated author, a gifted songwriter, an enigmatic actor, and a rule-breaking filmmaker—the consummate renaissance man. He died yesterday at the age of 89, leaving a tremendous legacy that seemed to touch every corner of American life. 

Van Peebles was one of those figures in cinematic history who serves as a demarcation: movies were one way before him and totally different after him. He was raw and uncompromising, an icon. Some might describe him as radical, but Van Peebles never saw Blackness or Black art as radical. Liberation, empowerment, and artistic freedom were the deserved ethos of an artist who never wasted a single frame, a single word, or a single second. 

Born in 1932 in Chicago, Illinois, Van Peebles initially did not envision himself as a filmmaker. After earning his B.A. in literature—grounding that would later add contours to his authorial career—from Ohio Wesleyan University, he enlisted in the Air Force for three and a half years. Following his time in the service he moved to San Francisco and became a cable car gripman, writing about his job in his first book The Big Heart. Though a passenger recommended he become a filmmaker, Van Peebles explains in the documentary, “How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It),” the director of the cable cars fired him for knowing how to read.

Undaunted, he wrote, directed, and produced his first short film, “Three Pickup Men for Herrick,” following a group of low-income Black men looking for work, in 1957, and “Sunlight,” concerning a Black man who must steal to afford to marry the woman he loves, shortly thereafter. In both brief works, experimental searches to discover his own cinematic language, Van Peebles’ vision moves with the verve of John Cassavetes and Oscar Micheaux, demonstrating, even in this nascent form, an original voice. When Hollywood rejected his films, he moved to France, and shot his third short, the French-language “Cinq cent balles,” about a young Parisian boy who discovers 500 francs in a gutter.

Van Peebles possessed a myriad of talents. But his greatest was the ability to create new doors when others were closed. When he learned that the French government funded the films of French writers, he learned French, became an investigative reporter for Le Nouvel Observateur, wrote four books and an anthology of short stories. He used the subsequent funding to adapt his book La Permission into a feature length directorial debut: “The Story of a Three-Day Pass.”

Watching the film now, it’s astounding the immediate grasp Van Peebles had for visual storytelling. The narrative concerns a recently promoted African-American U.S. Army G.I. (Harry Baird) stationed in France, who while on leave, falls for a white woman (Nicole Berger). In one breathtaking scene, the soldier enters a bar donning sunglasses with a trench coat draped over his shoulder. It’s his conception of what a cool, suave Black man should look like. A double dolly, what would become Spike Lee’s signature shot two decades later, carries the soldier across the room, and you can see the artistic spirit of Lee being born right there on the screen. It’s also a scene that challenges the monolithic image of Blackness. The soldier ultimately fails to pick up a date until he clumsily falls in front of the aforementioned white woman, reverting to his natural awkwardness, he leaves the stereotype for the real. 

”The Story of the Three-Day Pass” features jump cuts, freeze frames, splits screens, and fourth-wall breaks, and has a dancing scene reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande à Part” and several visual odes to “Breathless.”  With revolutionary originality, Van Peebles used these techniques to explore racial identity and definitions of Blackness. 

He carried those same techniques with him throughout his career, especially his next film “The Watermelon Man.” When Van Peebles received the script, the logline initially called for a white actor to turn Black. But the provocative director flipped the scenario, asking to make a Kafkaesque story wherein a white man, Jeff Gerber (played by the hilarious Godfrey Cambridge) wakes up Black. Within the courageous concept, Van Peebles subverted television and film conventions. Unlike most TV dads, Gerber isn’t well-liked by his family, or anyone else for that matter. He’s a boorish, sexist, racist white man the audience is meant to despise too. His turn to Blackness reveals the falsities of white liberal allyship, the many faces Black folks must don to survive in a white world, and the systematic economic racism affecting African Americans. 

“The Watermelon Man” was produced by Columbia Pictures when it was rare for a Black filmmaker to have major studio backing. And Van Peebles wielded unheard of creative control, choosing to change the intended ending, Gerber waking up white again, to a freeze frame of Black men practicing martial arts. Thereby ensuring the film be a statement of Black empowerment. 

Van Peebles could’ve parlayed the success into a massive multi-picture deal. In today’s world he would’ve been offered a tentpole franchise. But he said “no” to Columbia’s three-film pact. Instead he decided to make a movie he knew could never be rendered truthfully within the studio system. In “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song” Van Peeebles wrote, directed, produced, and starred as the titular character Sweetback, a sex worker forced on the run after murdering two white cops. “Sweetback” is a story of Black liberation and masculinity, and a commentary on police violence. He was the archetypal sexually powerful Black man, closely aligning with the director’s real-life reputation as a player. Van Peebles portrays him with a blanket of cool that would define generations of Black heroes to come. 

The film sparked a wave: the then-unknown Earth, Wind & Fire performed the soundtrack, Huey P. Newton endorsed the movie, and it proved the profitability of Black-made stories. Van Peebles refused to submit the movie to the MPAA, believing the all-white decision makers should not have the right to enact their standards onto a Black film made for Black audiences. While not the first Blaxploitation film, that title belongs to “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” which was released nine months earlier, “Sweetback” did inject the calling cards of sex and violence and the visual language that would become synonymous with the genre. In this sense, Van Peebles is the tangible link between the French New Wave and Blaxploitation, and created the blueprint by which every Black movie would follow. Even with his widespread success, Van Peebles wasn’t offered a chance by a major studio to direct again. 

Instead he moved to theater, writing Tony-nominated musicals such as Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death and Don’t Play Us Cheap. He released seven albums, influencing Gil Scott Heron and modern hip-hop. He became an options trader on the American Stock Exchange and a marathon runner. He continued to direct and write new films, collaborating with his son Mario Van Peebles, best known for helming “New Jack City.” 

The father and son became a dynamic duo, especially as Mario shifted toward edifying his father’s legacy. Next week, Criterion’s retrospective Van Peebles box set will be released. And without revealing too much, the compilation serves as an unintentional eulogy. There are no contemporary interviews from Van Peebles. Rather it’s Mario providing context to his father’s independent-minded vision. When I first learned of Van Peebles’ passing, I was watching Mario explaining the support his father provided to both him and the many other Black creatives who broke into the industry, words I’m sure Van Peebles heard himself, words that will strike a distinct emotional chord when heard in the future.

Van Peebles once told Mario about the four cycles in a person’s life: “Who’s Melvin?” “We Need Melvin” “We Need a Young Melvin” and “Who’s Melvin?” The irony being that Melvin Van Peebles never experienced the fourth stage. Everyone knew his impact on cinema. No one would or could forget him. He witnessed the generations who would follow and pay homage to him, and saw his movies return to prominence. That was the great gift of his life and career, the flowers rarely proffered to men who are ahead of their time. And in 2021, Melvin Van Peebles was still a man ahead of his time.  


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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