“How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Asss!” is Mario Van Peebles’ entertaining re-creation of the production circumstances surrounding father Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 feature “Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song,” a then-controversial smash hit that paved the way for the blaxploitation craze as well as the Amerindie explosion to follow. Current pic conveys the rope’s-end ingenuity that went into making a key title in black cinema. Ideally, theatrical play for Sony Classics pickup could be tied into re-release in various formats of the original film, which has been available only in cheap video dupes for years.
Without offering much biographical backstory, screenplay (adapted from the senior Van Peebles’ memoir) presents Melvin (Mario Van Peebles) at a career crossroads in 1970. After creating film-fest splash with the French-language drama “Story of a Three-Day Pass,” he’d made successful inroads in Hollywood via “Watermelon Man,” a trenchant satire on the U.S. racial divide. But studio execs comfortable with that comic take on discomfiting issues wanted nothing to do with Van Peebles’ proposition to next make a drama reflecting the true, angry mood of American blacks.
Exasperating his agent (Saul Rubinek), Melvin insists on pursuing this project, a vague scenario “starring the community,” centering on a “brother” made fugitive by the white establishment. Potential financiers prove elusive, so Melvin self-finances a non-union shoot, assembling a 50% minority crew that includes adult-film professionals, students and eager but inexperienced amateurs, as well as himself in the lead role.
Shot on the run with no permits, scant money and in constant production crises, “Sweet Sweetback’s” manages at last to get in the can. Even then, the distributors don’t want it, and the MPAA hits it with an X rating.
But when the pic preems in Detroit in early 1971, black audiences make it an instant word-of-mouth phenomenon that soon “crosses over” and earns back more than 10 times its $150,000 cost.
“Sweetback” was and is an uneven, sometimes crude and dull film. But it’s also an outrageous one that remains far more politically radical and filmically experimental than the more escapist blaxploitation titles that followed.
“How to Get the Man’s Foot…” shows Mario-as-Melvin staging some of the movie’s most infamous sequences, including the whorehouse-raised protag’s childhood sexual initiation, originally played by 10-year-old Mario himself. Brief excerpts from original feature are intercut with recreations throughout.
Benefiting from a narrower narrative focus than 1995’s “Panther,” on which father and sonalso collaborated, HD-shot pic is a tad overlong, shows low-budget strain at times, and in some ways would be most at home on the small screen.
Like “Panther,” pic makes rote use of voiceover narration and talking head “interviews” with actors playing real-life figures, gluing together a sometimes unwieldy storyline. (Under closing credits some of those persons — including Melvin Van Peebles, last-minute funding angel Bill Cosby and Maurice White of original soundtrack band Earth, Wind and Fire — offer latter-day comments.)
Attempts at directorial high style are middling; last section grows tedious prolonging “suspense” over whether “Sweetback” will be a hit or flop.
Still, as actor, helmer and co-scenarist (with Dennis Haggerty), Mario ultimately delivers a tale that’s engrossing for its underdog quality and significant place in film history. He’s careful not to over-idealize his father: Indeed, script and perf take pains to suggest how Melvin’s single-minded drive could alienate loved ones, with little Mario himself (Khleo Thomas) particularly bruised at times by dad’s insensitive, demanding ways.
Large array of supporting players are given assignments more colorful than depthed, but they fill the bill, with notable turns from David Alan Grier as a frazzled producer and Joy Bryant as Melvin’s bombshell secretary.
Some hyperactive contribs can’t disguise fact that overall production package is just adequate.