Written by: Mario Van Peebles and Dennis Haggerty, based on the book by Melvin Van Peebles
Directed by: Mario Van Peebles
Starring: Mario Van Peebles, Joy Bryant, Khleo Thomas, T.K. Carter, Terry Crews
- Running audio commentary by Melvin and Mario Van Peebles
- Featurettes: “The Birth of Black Cinema” and “The Premiere”
- American Cinematheque Q&A with Melvin Van Peebles
- Poster explorations
Released by: Columbia-Tristar.
My Advice: Rent it.
[ad#longpost]Melvin Van Peebles’ (Mario Van Peebles) star is on the rise. His latest movie is getting good buzz and he just signed a three-picture deal with Columbia. The conventional wisdom would have Peebles make a funky comedy. But in 1970, Peebles didn’t find much that was funny in America, especially for blacks. He was sick of blacks being portrayed as incorruptible Negroes of virtue or the steppin’ fetchin’ children of Aunt Jemima. He wanted to make a movie that was real, raunchy, and revolutionary. He wanted a movie about a black man who stuck it to The Man and lived to tell the tale. So began his journey to make Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. But with any revolution, there are battles to be fought. He almost lost his money, his family, even his life. But with guile, perseverance, and a bit of luck, he showed everyone who was the true Baadasssss!
The story of the director struggling to get his artistic vision across to the audience while battling the Hollywood sausage factory is as old as cinema itself. While the story may be familiar, this particular movie makes the experience feel real. It helps that the events actually happened, but most of the time the reality of the situation can get lost in the translation. While Mario adds a few artistic flourishes in the mix with a cherubic muse and Melvin talking with the Sweetback character, it’s when the movie simply tells the story is when it works the best. Also, Mario doesn’t stop when the movie is completed. He also shows the struggle to get the movie released and promoted, no mean feat in itself. But this isn’t a simple behind the scenes look into underground moviemaking. What gives the movie depth is the “character” of the man behind the movie.
Mario playing his own father allows him to show us nuances that no actor could ever hope to give. He’s also good at balancing his portrayal, neither too soft nor too hard. While Melvin is a hard man who sees weakness as failure, he’s the hardest on himself. I think that is the strength of the whole movie because Mario was there during the filming of Sweetback and can give details to a scene that can make it even richer. He does tend to overfocus on when his father had him in a graphic scene losing his virginity to a prostitute. It does show Melvin’s willingness to use people to further his vision but it also shows Melvin willing to give anything to get his movie made.
The features, taken individually, are very good. They reveal that Mario had many of the same problems with financing and shooting that his father originally had. Like his father, Mario hadn’t planned to play the lead role, but did it as a cost-saving measure. They also make the case that Sweetback started the black exploitation movement in cinema, stating that the lead detective character in Shaft was changed from white to black because of Sweetback‘s box office success.
The problem is that the commentary, the behind the scenes featurette, the Q&A with Melvin Van Peebles, and even the red carpet coverage at the premiere goes over much of the same material. There are differences of course. In the Q&A session, Melvin tells how he always saw Sweetback as a trilogy but never made them because he still wanted control and Hollywood was afraid to let him near a camera. In the commentary, both Mario and Melvin talk about many of the scenes were direct translations from the actual events. Mario, in the commentary, describes the decisions behind several of his shots.
That’s the stuff I like. Many commentaries rarely talk about the creative decisions and merely regurgitate behind the scenes anecdotes. Even with the repetition in the extras, Baadasssss! is still a worthy disc to rent.
- Click here to buy the book from Amazon.
- Click here to buy the soundtrack from Amazon.
- Click here to buy Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song from Amazon.