Melvin Van Peebles came to Hollywood in the 1950s to make films and was offered a job as an elevator operator instead. So he went to Europe to study astronomy only to have the stars lead him back to Hollywood, where he would become the “bad ass” of his destiny — a self-made man and a film pioneer.
The first African-American to direct a studio film, he is best known for “Sweet Sweetback’s BaadAsssss Song,” which he wrote, directed, produced, edited, composed music for and starred in.
The film created a revolution in independent and African-American filmmaking that continues to this day.
“Melvin is the Charlie Parker of film,” says St. Clair Bourne, a producer, writer and director of 42 documentaries, including “The Making of ‘Do the Right Thing.’ ” “He was such an individualist that it took people a long time to catch up to him. His film style and fractured style of editing was 20 years ahead of his time.”
Born and raised in a suburb of Chicago, Van Peebles graduated from Ohio Wesleyan U. and was one of the first black officers in the Air Force.
He made his first three shorts while working at a post office in San Francisco, but it was in Paris where he found his voice and a home for his art.
“When I got to Paris they welcomed me and showed my films,” Van Peebles says. “It was August of 1960 and I didn’t have a penny in my pocket. But they had done something very dangerous: They had given me encouragement.”
He stayed in Paris and wrote novels, one he adapted into a film and also directed called “La Permission” (The Story of a Three-Day Pass), about a black American soldier’s romance with a French woman. In 1968 the film was the French entry in the San Francisco Film Festival, where it won the Critics’ Choice Award.
Hollywood came calling and he directed the comedy “Watermelon Man,” starring Godfrey Cambridge, a black actor who played part of the movie in white face, and Van Peebles landed a three-picture deal with Columbia.
“Nobody ever let me in at the bottom so I got in at the top,” Van Peebles says. “With the opportunity before me, no one would think that I would go up against the system, so that’s how I got away with making ‘Sweetback.’ They let me do it because they expected me to fail, but sometimes God gets it right.”
He shot “Sweetback” in the L.A. neighborhood of Watts, using a patchwork group of minorities as a nonunion crew. A loan of $50,000 from Bill Cosby allowed him to finish the film, but Columbia and other studios turned it down and only two theaters in the U.S. would even show it due to its strong sexual content and its political statement.
But through the support of the Black Panthers and word of mouth, “Sweetback” became a hit. “Sweetback” definitely opened the door for “Shaft,” “Superfly” and “Foxy Brown” and the blaxploitation movement, but Isaac Julien, director of the documentary “Baadasssss Cinema,” says that Van Peebles’ film was truly an art film.
Van Peebles wrote about making the film in his bestselling book, “How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass,” which is now in its fourth U.S. printing and was the basis for the film, “Baadasssss!” directed by and starring his son, Mario Van Peebles. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival to standing ovations, it will be released May 28, more than 30 years after his father made “Sweetback.”
Scott Smith includes Melvin Van Peebles in his book “The Film 100,” a ranking of the most influential people in the history of cinema, and the French awarded him the Legion of Honor, but Van Peebles left Hollywood for New York to work in theater and has never had a film offer since.
“Christ was a carpenter in his hometown,” says Van Peebles. “I feel great about receiving the ShoWest award. It’s empowering just like Mario’s film because it adds a stamp of credibility to what I did.”
Melvin Van Peebles is a three-time Grammy nominee, an Emmy winner and has racked up 11 Tony mentions over a career that has spanned five decades. He also became the first black trader with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.
Le conte du ventre plein (2000) — writer, director, producer, composer
Gang in Blue (1996) director, producer
Vroom Vroom Vroom (1995) — writer, director, producer, editor, composer
Panther (1995) — writer
Greased Lightning (1995) writer
Identity Crisis (1989) — director, editor, producer,
Don’t Play Us Cheap (1973) — writer
Sweet Sweetback’s BaadAsssss Song (1971) — writer, director, producer, editor, composer, actor
Watermelon Man (1970) — director, actor, composer
Slogan (1969) — writer
La Permission (The Story of a Three-Day Pass) (1968) — writer, director, composer
Cinq cent balles (1963) — writer, director, composer,
A King (1957) — writer
Sunlight (1957) — writer, director, composer, producer
Three Pickup Men for Herrick (1957) — writer, director, composer