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Defector At The Movies

Film Lost Melvin Van Peebles Just When It Needed Him Most

Melvin Van Peebles speaking at the Gotham Independent Film Awards in 2008.
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Melvin Van Peebles was a black artist. This can be a weighty and complicated description to a lot of artists, writers, singers or filmmakers who are also black. They might dread the idea of being pigeonholed or boxed in by the expectations of what their skin color signals to everyone paying attention to them. It’s a natural insecurity for a creative person who feels their vision and mastery might offer something to the world at large, and not just the race they belong to. In this sense and in many others, he was different. Peebles, who passed away last Tuesday at the age of 89, seemed to salivate at the opportunity to make art for and about black people, in all their complexity, defiance, struggle, and glory. 

“I wanted to talk to the folks in the hood, I wanted them to listen to me, but they really weren’t interested that deeply in the other arts, so I asked myself: where’s everybody? They’re watching movies. Well I want to talk to them so I’ll do movies.” This is Peebles talking about what drove him into filmmaking for Unstoppable, a televised conversation between him and fellow titans of black film and art Gordon Parks and Ossie Davis. For all the things Melvin Van Peebles accomplished as a director, writer, musician, actor, and cultural icon, that statement is all you need to know about him. He made movies not just for black people but for poor black people, the kinfolk most at risk in America. For him, movies were a political act; in that medium, he was as radical a thinker as we’ve ever seen. 

Melvin Van Peebles was born on the south side of Chicago in 1932, and his career began in earnest in the late 1950s, when he wrote his first book, The Big Heart, while working as a cable car gripman in San Francisco. It was during this time he met a passenger who first suggested that he should be a filmmaker. He made a few short films around this time with no knowledge or formal training, starting with 1957’s Pickup Men for Herrick. He slowly but surely taught himself how to make movies with those short films, but he couldn’t find work in Hollywood. Instead he went to Paris, where his shorts had generated a little buzz, and eventually made his first feature film there, The Story of a Three-Day Pass in 1968. The film, about a black G.I. on a weekend pass in Paris whose romance with a white woman stirs up trouble, is one of the best movies of the decade, an inventive, fully realized picture. His use of a dolly shot, which was popularized by French filmmaker Abel Gance, plays as a sort of aesthetic Easter egg to contemporary viewers—Spike Lee, who later made that shot his signature, has talked about how he was influenced by its use here. 

That breakthrough independent film got him a shot to make a Hollywood film, which became 1970’s Watermelon Man. A tightrope of a movie about a white man who wakes up one morning inexplicably black, this was the first instance of Peebles fighting for his vision against the pressures and preferences of the studio game. He insisted on casting a black actor, Godfrey Cambridge, in the lead role, after the studio suggested a white actor to play it in blackface. And where the original script had Cambridge’s character waking back up as a white man as a sort of “happy ending,” Peebles fought against it. He hated the implication that being a black man was a nightmare and something that needed to be rectified. He ended up promising the studio that he would shoot two versions of an ending, including the one in the original script, but instead only filmed his preferred ending and claimed that he “forgot” to film the other version. It wasn’t just that Peebles was devoted to his vision, although he was; he was intent, in this film and throughout his career, upon making films that black people could feel good about seeing, and simply did whatever he could to make the films he wanted to make. Both Watermelon Man and Story of a Three-Day Pass included Peebles’ original music. As on his road to filmmaking, the fact that Peebles could not read or write music didn’t stop him. He just had an idea of the sound he wanted and taught himself to score using the piano. 

All of this headstrong artistic defiance and craft came together in his magnum opus, 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song; it’s the director at his peak not just creatively, but as an iconoclastic figure. In order to keep full creative control, Peebles raised the money himself, wrote the movie, directed and edited it, and starred as the titular character. Again, he also wrote the score, which was performed by a then-unknown group called Earth, Wind & Fire. Due to a now infamous battle with the MPAA—Peebles felt that the all-white board did not have the standing to judge the merits of his film—he received an automatic X rating, which kept the film from being advertised by major media markets and newspapers. So Peebles marketed the movie himself, too, including making T-shirts that read “Rated X By An All-White Jury.” The film only played in Atlanta and Detroit, but due to Peebles’s marketing and the film being celebrated by the Black Panthers for its encapsulation of the black struggle, it eventually made $10 million. More importantly, it proved to Hollywood there was a starving audience for this kind of cinema, ushering in the Blaxploitation era.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is unlike any other movie made then or since. It is one of the towering achievements in independent cinema. It is a propulsive, trippy, notably difficult movie about a black man who ends up on the run from the LAPD; to get into plot specifics would be beside the point. The movie is a showcase for Melvin Van Peebles as a cultural figure and artist and a statement about black people standing up for themselves against abuses by the state. It’s certainly entertaining, full of graphic sex and violence and a kinetic pace, with a charismatic star turn by Peebles in the center, but it also behaves and unfolds as stubbornly and strangely as the most avant-garde art films of that time. The movie plays with montage and jump cuts at what was still an early point for that editing style in American film, and sequences that make use of exposed film evoke the journey into infinity scene Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; it is also highly provocative in its racial and sexual politics. Peebles shot the film in Los Angeles, in Watts, and filled it with people from that neighborhood, which is why the opening credits say it is “starring the black community.” It’s one of the many ways Peebles made clear who and what his movies were about. 

Peebles would go on to write and direct more movies and the fantastic off-Broadway (then eventually to Broadway proper) musical Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. He wrote a number of novels that are increasingly harder to find and even made a few records, including the spoken word album Brer Soul and the more experimental Ghetto Gothic and What the….You Mean I Can’t Sing?! which played with funk, soul, reggae and hip-hop. His 1972 film Don’t Play Us For Cheap, about two devils who take on human form and try to disrupt a house party in Harlem one night, was based on his novel Harlem Party and has gone largely ignored but—along with his teleplay for the 1981 TV movie The Sophisticated Gents—shows off a rich sense of humor and a real understanding of the black working class.

But it’s Sweetback that stands out as his biggest achievement. Not just because it was successful, but because he made a film that showed black people taking on a system that tries to keep them down, on his own defiant terms. “The first truly revolutionary Black film made… presented to us by a Black man,” is what Huey P. Newton called it in the Black Panthers’ newspaper.

Movies about black revolution are welcomed now, so long as they play it safe. Even 10 years ago, it might have seemed shocking to see a studio movie about Fred Hampton, and it’s probably a sign of some kind of progress that we have gotten one. But movies like Judas and the Black Messiah or Queen and Slim still show the limitations of the Hollywood system. These are movies that want to be political but have no actual politics; in the case of Judas, it’s a shallow reimagining of the Black Panthers told from the vantage point of cops and disloyal outsiders. 

This is what working within the Hollywood system tends to do, even to black artists trying their best. And as the state of independent filmmaking becomes ever more tenuous despite all the seeming avenues available—and as the road to filmmaking becomes increasingly arduous for people who come from poverty or don’t have a college education—more and more entertainment, including black entertainment, becomes about life amongst either the educated rich or the middle-class. There’s certainly plenty to say about those worlds and life experiences, and there absolutely is value in depicting life for black people who come from means, but in this time of towering and widespread police abuses, increasing wealth disparity, and the broader crumbling of American empire, there is something abstracted and wildly insufficient about this approach. The need for films that amplify and embody the voices of the black and destitute in this country—films starring the black community, in short—has never been more urgent. There will never be an artist like Melvin Van Peebles again, but we could use one now more than ever.