“Sweet Sweetback” was a groundbreaking film a few times over. Van Peebles financed and released the film independently, paving the way for an entire ecosystem of indie cinema. Because he couldn’t afford a traditional marketing campaign, he used the film’s soundtrack album to build awareness for the movie. And most crucially, he proved that films by Black filmmakers about Black life in America could be a profitable endeavor, presaging the explosion in Blaxploitation cinema of the 1970s.
“Dad knew that Black images matter,” Mario Van Peebles said in a statement from the Criterion Collection. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”
“Sweet Sweetback” will be screened at the New York Film Festival this week for a 50th anniversary tribute. “In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music,” the Criterion Collection said.
Among those who paid tribute to him were director Barry Jenkins, who wrote, “He made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame and admittedly, while the last time I spent any time with him was MANY years ago, it was a night in which he absolutely danced his face off. The man just absolutely LIVED.”
He made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame and admittedly, while the last time I spent any time with him was MANY years ago, it was a night in which he absolutely danced his face off. The man just absolutely LIVED pic.twitter.com/IIpfU8wI7q
— Barry Jenkins (@BarryJenkins) September 22, 2021
Warrington Hudlin, founder of the Black Filmmaker Foundation, said,” As the Godfather of Black Cinema, he left us with both the inspiration and challenge to continue his artistic and racial disruption of the society we were born into. And he likely continues that provocation in the next life.”
Melvin and Mario Van Peebles teamed on the 1989 film “Identity Crisis,” with Melvin directing and Mario scripting and starring as a rapper possessed by the soul of a dead fashion designer. Melvin appeared in the 1993 Mario Van Peebles-directed “Posse,” in which Mario also starred, as well as in Mario’s Black Panther drama “Panther” (1995), with Melvin adapting the script from his own novel, the Mario Van Peebles-directed “Love Kills (1998) and the Mario-directed “Redemption Road” (2010).
Melvin Van Peebles also acted in the work of others, appearing in the 1991 feature comedy “True Identity”; Reginald Hudlin’s Eddie Murphy vehicle “Boomerang” (1992); big-budget Arnold Schwarzenegger action film “Last Action Hero” (1993); Charlie Sheen action film “Terminal Velocity” (1994); 2003 comedy “The Hebrew Hammer,” in which Melvin reprised the role of Sweetback and Mario also appeared; and Tina Gordon Chism’s 2013 romantic comedy “Peeples,” in which he played Grandpa Peeples.
In 1988 Mario Van Peebles starred in the brief NBC sitcom “Sonny Spoon,” about a private detective, in which his father was also a series regular as the private eye’s bar-owning father. On TV he also made guest appearances on series including “In the Heat of the Night,” “Dream On,” “Living Single” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
In “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” which Van Peebles wrote and directed, dedicating the film to “all of the Black brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man,” Van Peebles starred as the title character, an orphan (portrayed as a child by Van Peebles’ son Mario) raised in a California bordello, where he does menial tasks and grows up to appear in live sex shows there; one day he’s told to ride along with two crooked detectives (who collect protection money from the whorehouse and elsewhere), and they end up beating a Black militant. Sweetback finally decides he’s had enough and attacks the cops, saving the Black militant; from that point the film focuses on Sweetback’s flight to the Mexican border.
Van Peebles employed a variety of interesting effects, including a great deal of hand-held work “to help express the paranoid nightmare that the fugitive’s life had become,” according to the book “The 50 Most Influential Black Films: A Celebration of African-American Talent, Determination, and Creativity.”
Produced on a total budget of $500,000, “Sweetback” saw box office of $10 million, according to “The 50 Most Influential Black Films”; a few months after, the studio-made, Gordon Parks-directed “Shaft,” starring Richard Roundtree, was released and became a significant success.
“Sweetback” and “Shaft,” together with the following year’s “Superfly,” directed by Gordon Parks Jr., are generally regarded as having together given birth to the Blaxploitation genre.
Van Peebles, however, was critical of many Blaxploitation films for being devoid of political content.
Columbia had offered Van Peebles a three-picture contract on the strength of his previous film “Watermelon Man,” but neither Columbia nor any other other studio would finance the film project that would become “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song,” so he did so himself; Bill Cosby loaned him $50,000 to complete the project.
The soundtrack to the film, featuring Earth, Wind & Fire, was released prior to the film itself in order to generate publicity and word of mouth.
When “Sweetback” drew an X rating from the MPAA, Van Peebles cleverly transformed this significant hindrance to any film’s box office prospects into an advertising tagline that played well with his target audience — “Rated X by an all white jury” — and declared, “Should the rest of the community submit to your censorship that is its business, but White standards shall no longer be imposed on the Black community.”
“Sweetback” drew a mixed critical response. The New York Times wrote a devastating review upon its release, but in a 1995 reappraisal, Stephen Holden wrote, “This sulphurous nightmare of racial paranoia and revenge eclipses even ‘Reservoir Dogs’ in evoking a world of infinite seaminess, injustice and cruelty. Mr. Van Peebles’s film was not only the granddaddy of (Blaxploitation films) but also the most innovative and politically inflammatory.”
In 2003 Mario Van Peebles directed the film “Baadassss!,” which was both a documentary and an homage to his father’s “Sweetback.”
The multitalented Melvin Van Peebles had four shows on Broadway, the first of which was “Ain’t Suppose to Die a Natural Death,” for which he wrote the book, music and lyrics; it started Off Broadway and ran for a total of 325 performances in 1971-72. The musical, which contained material from his three albums “Brer Soul,” “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” and “As Serious as a Heart-Attack,” was Tony nominated for best musical, and Van Peebles was nominated for best book of a musical and best original score, while the musical also received nominations for direction, scenic design and set design. It is set for a Broadway revival in 2022.
For his next musical the following year, Van Peebles took more control, not only penning the book, music and lyrics but also producing and directing. “Don’t Play Us Cheap!” earned him another Tony nomination, for book of a musical, and in 1973 he adapted it into a film.
For 1980’s “Reggae: A Musical Revelation,” Van Peebles contributed only the book, but two years later, the original comedy with music “Waltz of the Stork,” with book, music and lyrics by Van Peebles, produced and directed by Van Peebles and starring Van Peebles, ran for 156 performances. (Mario contributed background vocals and appeared in drag in some scenes.) Van Peebles turned “Waltz of the Stork” into the 2008 film “Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha,” which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.
For the “CBS Schoolbreak Special” episode “The Day They Came to Arrest the Books,” Van Peebles won a Daytime Emmy in 1987 for outstanding writing in a children’s special and also won a Humanitas Prize.
Melvin Van Peebles was born in Chicago and attended West Virginia State College and then Ohio Wesleyan University, where he earned a B.A. in English literature. He served in the Air Force as a navigator-bombardier for three years.
Van Peebles experimented with career as a painter, and, growing appalled by the racist portrayal of African Americans in movies, made some film shorts as an amateur in the late ’50s and early ’60s. He did stints as a postal worker and, in San Francisco, a cable-car grip — about which he wrote his first book, “The Big Heart,” in 1957. He spent some time in Mexico; in Holland he studied astronomy at the University of Amsterdam and acting at the Dutch National Theater.
The Cinematheque Francaise invited Van Peebles to screen his shorts at its theater in Paris, where he spent some time as a street entertainer and wrote five novels (in English); the last of these books, “La Permission,” enabled his admission to the French Cinema Center as a director and led to a grant of $70,000. While still in Paris he adapted this novel into his first feature-length film, the Van Peebles-written and -directed “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” (1968), which concerned an interracial love story and addressed racism — a Black soldier is involved with a white girl and demoted as a result.
“The Story of a Three-Day Pass” led to his first directing assignment in the U.S.: “Watermelon Man,” a comedy about a bigoted white man who’s turned into a Black man (played by comedian Godfrey Cambridge) overnight. His wife was played by Estelle Parsons.
Joe Angio’s 2005 documentary “How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)” recounted the roller-coaster life of Van Peebles.
Van Peebles was married once, to the German-born actress and photographer Maria Marx, in the 1950s, but the marriage ended in divorce after several years.
In addition to son Mario, he is survived by son Max Van Peebles, an occasional actor and assistant director, daughter Marguerite, and grandchildren. His daughter Megan pre-deceased him.