Corrections were made to this review on May 12, 2005
Vivid, inventive docu about eclectic multihyphenate Melvin Van Peebles proves conclusively that truth can be more fascinating and better structured than fiction. “Watermelon” makes “Baadasssss!” — son Mario’s heartfelt attempt to direct himself playing his father — look half-assed. Lively interviews from a wide range of people, a wealth of excerpted footage stretching over decades, and a story packed with legend are served up by helmer Joe Angio with a verve mirroring the restless creativity of the film’s subject.
Despite the variety of experiences covered, the emerging image of Van Peebles is as sharply defined as the full-body plaster cast, complete with jaunty cigar stub, that serves as the opening image to Angio’s docu.
Pic sets the backstory with “A Brief History of Melvin Van Peebles,” narrated in the ’40s newsreel voiceover (hats off to Dick Hehmeyer’s pitch-perfect newspiel) to trace van Peebles early life, including stints as a bomber pilot, a cable-car driver and an astronomy student (in Holland), as well as his experimentation with short films.
Invited by Henri Langlois to exhibit his pics at the Cinematheque, Van Peebles went to Paris which, to quote French cineaste and onetime girlfriend Janine Euvrard, “fit him like a glove” as it had many contemporaneous black American expatriates.
Speaking no French upon arrival, Melvin was soon writing for the anarchist magazine “Hara Kiri.” Learning that the French government gave grants to writers to convert their novels to film, he published five novels in French in order to make his debut feature, “Story of a Three Day Pass.”
What follows are enough achievements to fill several lifetimes. Subsequent film, “Watermelon Man,” about a racist, middle-class white man who wakes up horrified to find he turned black overnight, was van Peebles’ first (and last) studio picture. His third pic, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song,” was hailed as a watershed in black cinema. When Hollywood saw how much money a no-budget, limited-release black actioner could reap, it was quickly imitated, and Van Peebles found himself the unlikely progenitor of blaxploitation.
Film and books weren’t his only artistic endeavors. Undaunted by the fact he sounded “like a frog on crack,” to quote his son, Van Peebles started composing and recording music, becoming a progenitor of rap. Soon, as attested to by still-stupefied insiders, he had two Tony-nominated musicals on Broadway simultaneously. (Always in synch with the times, in the ’80s he became an options trader on the American Stock Exchange to win a bet with a friend.)
Spike Lee somewhat ambivalently praises Van Peebles’ skill at making controversy work to his advantage, treating blackness as a commodity. But Angio makes clear that Van Peebles’ genius lies less in God-given talent than in his ability to rise to perceived challenges, his willingness to reinvent himself, and to sell others on his inventions.