Directors: Melvin Van Peebles/Mario Van Peebles
The Films THE MAN Doesn’t Want You to See
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Right after we finished viewing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the hubby’s brother turned to us and said, “That’s the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen.” Obviously, the brother doesn’t spend enough time with us. If he did, he’d recognize this film for what it is—the almost prototypical fever dream of the independent filmmaker.
One interesting thing about Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is that it came on the heels of a hit film Melvin Van Peebles made for Columbia Pictures called Watermelon Man, in which a white bigot wakes up one day to discover that he’s turned into Godfrey Cambridge. It’s not clear what drove this black director off the course of mainstream success, but his next effort, largely financed with his own money, was nothing short of revolutionary for the film industry. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song launched the genre known as blaxploitation (can anyone explain that term to me?), which brought a slew of heroic black enforcers and sexy black women to the screen for the mass consumption of a large, previously ignored black audience.
The explanation for Melvin’s change of direction is suggested in Baadasssss!, son Mario’s docudrama about the making of Sweet Sweetback. There was a lot of political foment in the world, and several heroes of the black community in America—Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, JFK, RFK, Medgar Evers—had been slaughtered. The black community was up in arms and looking for a life in the United States on their own terms. For Melvin Van Pebbles (the “Van” is an affectation to signal his self-proclaimed stature in America), the decision to make Sweet Sweetback was both a political statement and a shrewd move to cash in on an audience he knew was not being served. His move paid off; Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song made $15 million dollars, the highest-grossing independent film in its release year.
So what is it that black audiences wanted in 1971-72? The story of Sweetback starts when he was taken off the streets of Los Angeles by the kind-hearted residents of a house of prostitution. We watch as they fawn over the raggedy Sweetback and feed him full to bursting. The brothel becomes Sweetback’s home and the place where he gets his sexually charged name when a prostitute initiates the young man (Mario Van Peebles) and uses the term for him as they have sex.
Fast-forward to the adult Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles) who is a regular part of the live sex show that turns a tidy profit for his employer Beetle (Simon Chuckster). Two white cops to whom Beetle pays protection come by and ask to borrow one of his “boys” for the evening to show headquarters they’re working on a case. Beetle complains that he’s shorthanded: “George is sick.” The cops wait to get an eyeful of the sex show, then borrow Sweetback.
The cops arrest a young Black Panther named Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales) and drive to a place where they can rough him up. Sweetback is handcuffed, for appearances, to one of the cops. One of them apologizes to him and unlocks one of the cuffs so he doesn’t have to be part of the beating. Sweetback watches silently and makes a life-changing decision. He wraps his hand in the open cuff and uses it like brass knuckles to beat the cops senseless and help Mu-Mu escape. From that moment on, Sweetback is a man on the run who is dedicated to protecting Mu-Mu, who he sees as the future of the black community.
The search for Sweetback by the police gives Van Peebles a chance to showcase the faces of ordinary members of the black community in all their variety as the police canvass them for information. One particularly brutal part of this search has the cops burst in on Beetle as he plays happily with two kittens and permanently deafen him by firing a service revolver next to each of his ears. This man who unself-consciously sat on the toilet in a shower cap as he spoke to Sweetback is the first of several affecting sacrifices in the film.
Van Peebles packs the movie with plenty of Sweetback sex, which if we are to judge from the worker compensation claim the director filed for getting gonorrhea from one of the girls, was not simulated. One sex scene in which Sweetback, captured by a white motorcycle gang, is forced to have sex with the female head of the gang is just plain bizarre. The gang pretend to hide Sweetback and Mu-Mu but actually call the police. Sweetback is forced to kill the cops; a black motorcyclist played by John Amos happens by and carries Mu-Mu to safety as Sweetback heads through the California desert toward Mexico.
This is a good-looking film, despite the 16mm stock that Van Peebles was forced to use to keep costs down. The film has a driving pace set by quick cuts, chase sequences, and frame insets set to a funky score written and performed by the budding group Earth, Wind, and Fire. Van Peebles wrote several primitive-sounding songs as well, and the line “You bled my Momma—You bled my Poppa—But you won’t bleed me” sounds again and again as Sweetback eludes capture.
At the beginning, Van Peebles projects a title card that says “Dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man.” The famous title card at the end promising, “A Baad Asssss Nigger Is Coming Back to Collect Some Dues” speaks for all of the murdered and abused black characters in the film. In a way, I suppose he also meant it to avenge all of the maid, shoeshine boy, and Oreo characters Hollywood forced on its black actors and actresses before Melvin Van Peebles changed everything.
By the time Mario Van Peebles was ready to tell the story of Sweet Sweetback, the lot of the independent filmmaker had changed. Indies were a hot commodity in the industry, with the Sundance Fim Festival a high-profile event for both independent filmmakers and studio honchos looking for the next sensation. Mario Van Peebles was a bonafide star among black actors, and his father was (and is) revered in some circles for paving the way for black filmmakers. Baadasssss!, therefore, boasts first-rate production values, known performers, and advances in storytelling technique that reflect its purer pedigree.
A telling quote from the movie about sums up the trials Baadasssss! depicts. Mario Van Peebles, playing his father Melvin, says to Priscilla (the wonderful Joy Bryant), his production secretary and an actress who puts on mini-auditions every time she comes near him, “Is this something negative, Priscilla? Because if it’s negative, I can’t even deal with it right now. I’m a broke, pissed-off nigger from Chicago, and I’m down to my last cigar.”
Of course, Melvin doesn’t start out that way. Baadasssss! shows Melvin holed up in a room for several weeks struggling to give shape to his vision. In one particularly inspired moment, Melvin steps through a mirror into a sepia-toned black neighborhood, looking at all the faces and focusing on a young boy bouncing on a trampoline while wearing angel wings. This boy will become his guardian angel, singing “You bled my Momma…” at various points to keep Melvin on track. The moment also will inspire him to call the black community the stars of his film.
Melvin’s early attempts at financing are set up by a hippie named Bill Harris (Rainn Wilson). All are disasters, particularly one in which Melvin visits the Malibu home of someone identified only as Bert who, as camped to the hilt by Adam West, comes on to Melvin by disrobing at poolside and suggesting they take a swim together. Eventually, Melvin decides to use his own money, which changes the production considerably.
Cutting the shooting schedule to under 20 days, Melvin also gets around union rules by fooling the production shop stewards into thinking he is shooting a porn movie. The union considers such films beneath them. Melvin goes so far as to hire a porn producer named Clyde Houston (David Alan Grier) to act as his assistant director.
The most controversial part of the shooting is Sweetback losing his virginity. Melvin’s girlfriend Sandra (Nia Long) can’t think he’s serious about using Mario in the scene. Melvin is so driven by his ambition for the film, as well as alienated from his son who normally lives with his mother, that he sees nothing wrong with it. He even instructs Nora (Les Miller), the make-up supervisor, to cut Mario’s afro and shave patches in it to make it look as though Sweetback has ringworm. Throughout the course of the film, the growing closeness between Melvin and Mario becomes a secondary, but important story and one that makes Baadasssss! distinctively the work of its director.
The film has some great comic moments. When Big T (Terry Crews), a meat smoker of prodigious size, is told he will be reporting to Bob Maxwell (Robert Peters), a short, white sound engineer, he goes all black power on Melvin. The physical contrast of this odd couple makes for several great sight gags; in the end, the pair go on to work together in more films. In fact, Mario documents a great moment in moviemaking by recounting the crew Melvin put together, a full 50 percent of which was composed of minority workers.
The most dramatic moment of Baadasssss! comes when Melvin learns from his distribution company, a no-name outfit called Cinemation, that because of its X rating, the film will open in only two theatres, one in Atlanta and one in Detroit. Melvin decides he has to make a pitch to the theatre owners, twin brothers named Goldberg, both beautifully played by Len Lesser. This blogathon concerns double bills, but in Goldberg’s urban theaters, triple bills were the norm because the public demanded the most bang for its dollar. Melvin convinces the Goldbergs to run Sweet Sweetback alone. If the film doesn’t draw an audience, he will buy them both suits from the tailor of their choice.
The first showing brings in one man wearing a beret and dark glasses, as well as an older married couple. The man walks out; then the couple, scandalized by the motorcycle gang sex scene, leave as well. The Goldbergs are already preparing to change the marquee, when a group of 23 come up to the ticket booth. “We don’t issue refunds,” the nervous ticket taker says. “We want to buy tickets,” says the leader, the same Black Panther who was in the theatre earlier. Soon the theatre fills to capacity, and every showing has people lined up around the block. The emotional involvement of the audience in Sweetback’s escape is breathtakingly captured. And the Goldbergs buy Melvin a new suit.
Baadasssss! is a richly detailed, funny, and important document of a maverick filmmaking experience. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is a thoroughly independent affair that bursts with energy and urgency. They make a great double bill. If you want to try for a triple bill like the Goldbergs used to do, add the documentary How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) for Melvin in all his sassy splendor.