Pioneering U.S. black filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles casts an acerbic, unapologetically personal eye on the history of African-American screen imagery in "Classified X." While short docu feature (made for Euro TV) breaks no new ground, Van Peebles' distinctive analyses and his ever-growing importance to new black helmers via 1971's breakthrough "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" make this a package with shelf life for cinematheques, schools and select broadcaster webs.

Pioneering U.S. black filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles casts an acerbic, unapologetically personal eye on the history of African-American screen imagery in “Classified X.” While short docu feature (made for Euro TV) breaks no new ground, Van Peebles’ distinctive analyses and his ever-growing importance to new black helmers via 1971’s breakthrough “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” make this a package with shelf life for cinematheques, schools and select broadcaster webs.

Vid-shot, 35 mm-transferred item was directed by Mark Daniels, and its style much recalls his work as lenser for Mark Rappaport’s docu-fiction hybrids (“From the Journals of Jean Seberg,” etc.). As in those films, the narrator-star (Van Peebles himself) narrates while clips, stills or location shots are back-projected behind him. Though techniques on hand are at first fairly conventional, they grow more experimental in second half.

A bit halting in his on-camera delivery, Van Peebles nonetheless fires off a series of incisive commentaries that occasionally border on the excessively academic in tone. Excerpts from more than 70 features — none identified, unfortunately — chart Hollywood’s history of racist stereotyping from even before D.W. Griffith’s notorious KKK-championing “Birth of a Nation.”

Scaredy-cat comedy-relief types, jungle “savages,” mammies and minstrels (Van Peebles acidly observes that Caucasian players “put on blackface when they felt like doing something extra-stupid”) gave way after World War II to “The New Negro” — a put-upon “keeper of conscience” for the white protagonists. Pic briefly exits Hollywood to consider the independent black cinema that flourished — with strict low-budget bounds — from silent days till the late ’40s, supported by a network of blacks-only theaters.

But it wasn’t until Van Peebles self-produced his aesthetically innovative, politically incendiary (the Black Panthers endorsed it) “Sweetback” that the industry paid attention — after all, it grossed $10 million at home alone. Their response was to warp his themes into the violent, fairly apolitical ’70s “blaxploitation” genre, until this well also ran dry.

The accusatory thesis of “Classified X” allows little room for good news. Thus, less-compromised ’60s and ’70s features by black filmmakers are ignored, and the whole generation of talents to have come up since Spike Lee is barely alluded to. One might also question a docu that spends more time, and showers more glory, on its own writer’s best-known pic than anything else. Still, if Van Peebles has a personal ax to grind, he’s surely earned that right, and his blade cuts pretty sharp at times.

Tech work is fine, though package as a whole will look better on the small screen.

Melvin Van Peebles' Classified X

Production

A Les Films D'Ici/Yeah Inc./Ecoutez Voie/La Sept Arte production in association with Channel 4 and TP, with the participation of Centre National de la Cinematographie and Procirep. Produced by Yves Jeanneau, Christine Le Goff, Judy Eley. Executive producers, Jeanneau, Melvin Van Peebles, Patrick Dumez, Sylvie Jezequel. Directed by Mark Daniels. Screenplay, Melvin Van Peebles.

With

Narrator: Melvin Van Peebles.
Camera (color, video to 35 mm), Daniels; editors, Catherine Mabilat, Janice Jones; art direction, Patrick Durand; sound, Olivier Schwob. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (American Spectrum), Jan. 25, 1998. Running time: 53 min.
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