The granddaddy of black-means-business cinema founded on something other than bugged-eyes and "yes'ums," Van Peebles pioneered the take-no-prisoners style of independent cinema back when "indie" really meant something.
His iconoclastic 1971 black consciousness classic Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was a one-man, X-rated film revolution shot in a nearly avant-garde style on a shoestring budget.
Van Peebles sunk his own money, put his crew and his family at risk, and courted blindness and bankruptcy to make that seminal work. Sweetback is a raw, angry expression of black rage against the machine, about fugitive brothel stud Sweetback (Van Peebles) on the run from a corrupt Los Angeles police department long before Rodney King made headlines.
"Sweetback represented a double punch," says Melvin, now 71 and as salty and politically aware as any twenty-something upstart. "It was the first time blacks had been shown that way, and also the largest grossing independent film not only of 1971, but up until that time. And suddenly independent films were taken seriously."
Three decades after Sweetback became an instant cult classic, Melvin's son, actor and director Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City, Posse), has made a tribute and expose of the long road to making Sweetback called Baadasssss!
Mario not only directed this story of Melvin's career-defining film, but plays his own father to further intensify the film's head-swimming reality-once-removed effect. For Mario, the film was often an exercise in therapeutic filmmaking. Mario did much more than simply play his father, but often channeled the "by any means necessary" Melvin way, getting inside his dad's head.
"We play our parents probably subconsciously, but to play your parent officially and find that there wasn't as much of a gap as you thought..." laughs Mario. "It wasn't a stretch!"
Making the rounds to promote the film, Melvin masticates a cigar, mogul-style, and exhibits a laid-back demeanor that contrasts with Mario's Ivy League-articulate, quipping intensity. Father and son take turns reflecting on the importance of making films by and about the black experience.
Baadasssss!'s creative licks suggest that Mario's apple has not fallen far from the tree. Either in tribute to his father, or because of an unavoidable genetic preference for hyperbole, Baadasssss!'s mix of faux-documentary and docudrama techniques is slightly cartoonish and didactic, but a consistently enjoyable dramatization of the wholesale difficulty of getting a low-budget independent film made.
Mario decided the time was right to pay homage to Melvin when he was researching his role as Malcolm X for Michael Mann's Ali. Mario wanted to talk to every journalist who had interviewed Malcolm in depth and discovered that as a journalist in France, Melvin had interviewed the black activist.
Reflecting on all of Melvin's accomplishments as a novelist, journalist and director, Mario gained a renewed appreciation for his father as a barrier toppler, both for African-Americans and for independent filmmakers trying to make something fresh and original, even revolutionary.
"Up until that time, a black never made it to the end of a film," states Melvin. "He always got killed off and then some very heroic person prayed over him at the end."
The enormous financial success of Sweetback spawned a whole cycle of derivative "blaxploitation" dramas like Shaft and Coffy, predicated on sexually potent black action heroes contending with The Man. Those Hollywood films captured the vibe but not the spirit of Melvin's politically urgent Sweetback, Mario says. Blaxploitation filmmakers took the formula of empowered black lead and dope soundtrack "but drained out the social commentary."
"Same thing with rap," he opines. "You start out with the spoken word and now you get to rap today and what are we doing? We're listening to the silliest shit in the world... the stuff on the radio pulls out the content."
Though Baadasssss! doesn't shy away from showing Melvin's autocratic, even cruel personality, which made everything -- including his own family -- take a backseat to moviemaking, the love is still there, Mario says.
"At the end of the day, I had terrific respect for what he stood for," says Mario. "And that superseded and eclipsed all of our differences."