The film world lost a legend last week with the passing of one of its godfathers, Melvin Van Peebles. Robert Daniels has already written a lovely tribute to the man that you can read here, but some of our other contributors wanted to share their thoughts on the life and legacy of a true giant.
Melvin Van Peebles has been such a part of my life that I don't know where to begin or what to talk about. I could start with when I cut school to go see “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (“Rated X by An All White Jury” as the ads proudly proclaimed) when it first came out at the Oriental Theater in Chicago. The great thing about those wonderful, long-gone downtown Chicago movie theaters was that movie ratings didn't matter. Ticket sellers didn't care how old you were or checked I.D. as long as you had the price of a ticket.
Or there was the time ten years where I was invited to attend a dinner in his honor and when Melvin gave his speech he proceeded, as only Melvin could and would, to tell the story of how he made his first French short film “Cinq Cent Balles” but in a non-PC way that so that I nearly passed out to from keeping from laughing out loud. One of organizers of the event kept giving me the side eye, silently saying “You better not ...” Melvin would have loved it.
But the story I want to tell happened back in 2003 when I was assigned to do a joint interview with Melvin and his son Mario Van Peebles when they were on a joint promotional tour for Mario’s film “Baadasssss,” his terrific film about the making of “Sweet Sweetback” with Mario not only directing but also playing his father. This was my first celebrity interview and though I had met Melvin before and would again a few times after the interview I was admittedly nervous, especially considering how much his films mean to me. The interview went well, but, halfway through, Mario excused himself. Alone with Melvin, he took the cue and proceeded to cut loose, regaling me with stories and jokes that only Melvin could have done.
However, the biggest surprise came afterward when I started to transcribe the interview and discovered that Melvin did not answer a single question that I asked him. He simply went on his own way talking, about he wanted to talk about. I realized that I should have known better. That is what Melvin Van Peebles was. He was an agitator, an instigator, a troublemaker, an anarchist, a filmmaker, and an artistic genius. He poked his thumb in the eye of polite society and their stifling norms and trashed the room. He wanted his presence to recognize that a Black man was here and to make sure that you never forgot him.
The world of not only Black cinema but independent cinema as well owes him an enormous debt of gratitude that they can never fully repay. He was the one and only and never to be forgotten. I sure as hell won't.
During my early 20s, Melvin Van Peebles came to Chicago for a talk. During the Q&A, I stood up and asked if I could be his apprentice. When everyone in the audience laughed, he said, "Yes." He politely came up to me, extending his hand, introducing himself. It also turned out that his high school (Thornton Township) was from my school district. We chatted a bit more over the phone from his offices at "Yeah, Inc." but I was not able to make it to New York to work with him. But his generosity remains with me.
The modern film landscape has become so anemic and such an echo chamber that the idea of true revolutionary art seems almost unthinkable now. What would a movie look or feel like that stopped people in their tracks? That got everyone talking? That changed things? Melvin Van Peebles made them. “The Story of a Three Day Pass” uses the outsider gaze of the French New Wave to tell the story of his own alienation from a supposedly enlightened society. “Watermelon Man” took sitcom/Disney language and made one of the most shocking comedies of the century with it. And “Sweet Sweetback” was the only real Robin Hood story America ever needed, a chaotic, sexual, violent, unreasonable and Cool story of killing cops and getting away with it because the people want your freedom more than the authorities want you dead. He wrote novels, he staged plays, he was a mentor and a friend to young filmmakers who needed his hand on their shoulder (I was once told he and Spike Lee were both initially refused admission to “Do the Right Thing”’s Cannes premiere because they didn’t show up in tails, and I can perfectly picture them taking the news), but even if he had just made any of those three films his place in history would be assured. We needed him badly. Now more than ever we need artists who don’t see risk—they just see the truth and tell it.
My first, albeit glancing, encounter with the work of the legendary—and in this case, that word is not so much hyperbole as a simple statement of fact—Melvin Van Peebles came when I was about eight years old, and, like so many things related to my still-developing interest in all things cinema, was due to the efforts of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. By this time, around 1979, I was already an avid viewer of “Sneak Previews” and at one point, they did a special episode entitled “Movies that Changed the Movies” in which they took a look at films that had gone on to have enormous, trend-shifting influence on the industry in recent years. Some of the titles under discussion were ones that would have already heard of by that point—things like “Jaws,” “Airport,” and “Easy Rider” while others were unknown to me. Falling into the latter category was “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” his groundbreaking 1971 film that he wrote, directed, co-produced, edited, scored and starred in about a Black man on the run from police after being arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Produced outside a Hollywood system that would never have even dreamed of putting a penny into it—even though Van Peebles had already worked for a major studio with his previous film, the wild 1970 comedy “Watermelon Man”—it went on to become a huge hit with chronically underserved Black audiences who were at long last able to see a movie that represented their struggles and has often been cited as a precursor to the popular blaxploitation genre. In truth, the film was not exactly a true blaxploitation movie—while it contained plenty of action, sex, violence and other easily exploitable elements, it was far more inventive and radical than most of those films both from a formal perspective, utilizing cinematic techniques that were more common found at the time in European cinema, as well as a political one—this may have been a tense action-thriller but it was ultimately one that was genuinely about something more than cheap thrills. If anything, it was more of a precursor of what would eventually become known as the American film movement.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that at the time of this “Sneak Previews” episode. All I knew is that A.) the brief clips featured on the show were utterly unlike anything I had seen up to that point, B.) it had one of the most memorable titles that I had ever heard and C.) there was no way that I was going to be seeing it anytime soon—even in the highly unlikely event that the film appeared in the profoundly white-bread midwestern suburbs where I grew up, I was still young enough that merely saying the full title would have earned myself at least a mild reprimand from my parents. However, I never forgot it and when I finally got a chance to see it on home video a decade or so later, I leapt at it, albeit with a certain amount of apprehension that it would prove to be one of those movies that may have captured the moment when it was made but which did not exactly age very well. That was not the case. The film was still a potent and oftentimes radical piece of cinema that remained as vibrant, alive and relevant as it was when it first came out.
It has been roughly 30 years since I first saw it and the film, as you can see via its inclusion in the upcoming and more-essential-than-ever Criterion box set “Melvin Van Peebles Essential Films,” remains as potent and powerful as it was when it debuted a half-century earlier and not just because the issues it deals with have remained depressingly topical as ever. Van Peebles may be gone but “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song”—which was duly enshrined in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress last year—is still here. I have no doubt that it will go on to entertain, outrage and inspire viewers for a long time to come.