Director/Writer: Joe Angio
By Marilyn Ferdinand
After Oscar Micheaux, who pioneered black independent filmmaking during the silent era and beyond, the most important African-American filmmaker is Melvin Van Peebles. The 76-year-old Van Peebles almost singlehandedly created the modern black film, paving the way for such singular black voices a generation later as Spike Lee, John Singleton, and his own son, Mario Van Peebles.
He’s best known as the creator of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song. Hollywood studios believed there was no audience for black films because their own attempts had failed. Van Peebles said Hollywood never made a black film, just white films with “nontraditional” black characters usually played by Sidney Poitier. Van Peebles said Sweetback was a film he wanted to see and felt it would make him a tidy sum of money because other African Americans would want to see it, too. He was right. Sweetback burst onto the scene in 1971 with such force that it kicked off a new genre called blaxploitation. Black Panther leader Huey Newton required all Black Panthers to see the film.
But Sweetback is just the tip of the iceberg of the Renaissance Man who is Melvin Van Peebles. In How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It), director/writer Joe Angio offers viewers one of the most entertaining and informative documentary biographies around, combining talking-head interviews of the man himself, his four children, and others who knew him with a mock newsreel of Van Peebles’ early life, excerpts from his films and plays, archival footage of him in a variety of situations, and location shots of him filming Le conte du ventre plein (Bellyful, 2000) in France.
The film begins with a sculptor applying a blue, plasticine substance to Van Peebles’ head as part of a process of mold-making, clay modeling, and final casting for a life-sized replica of Van Peebles as part of the celebration of his receipt of the French Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest award. It’s the perfect metaphor for a film about the molding of an artist who broke the mold of stereotypes about the black experience and what black Americans wanted and could achieve.
Van Peebles is shown instructing some young actors in Bellyful about a scene. First surprise—his French is good. And why not—he lived in France for a number of years and taught himself not only to speak French, but also to write it to take advantage of a French law that would allow writers adapting their own work to hold a temporary director’s permit. The book he brought to the screen was La Permission (1968), a romance between an African-American serviceman on leave and a white French woman. The film was well received and was accepted for showing by the San Francisco Film Festival. In America, the film was criticized for not showing enough pain; Van Peebles sneers that white folks always want to see how much they make black folks suffer.
Nonetheless, it caught the eye of some studio honchos, and Van Peebles was offered a chance to direct a mainstream Hollywood movie, Watermelon Man (1970). He tells how the studio wanted to cast a star like Jack Lemmon in the part of a white man who wakes up one morning and discovers he has turned black. Van Peebles argued that the character is white for only a short time so why not cast a black actor and put him in white face during the opening sequence. This was met with great resistance, but eventually Van Peebles got his way. The studio wanted the film to end with the character turning white again. “That made it seem like being black was a bad dream,” said Van Peebles, who agreed to shoot the film with two endings—and then “forgot” to film the bad-dream ending. Unwilling to deal with Hollywood’s bland and insulting assignments and wanting to make some real money for himself, Van Peebles began the odyssey that would result in Sweetback.
What I appreciate so much about this film is the chance to see how big a mark Van Peebles has made on the world, the size of which I personally knew nothing about. His Brer Soul record is considered one of the first rap albums ever recorded. He had two shows running on Broadway at the same time—the only time in history an African-American impresario has done that—and his Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death was a Tony-nominated production. Clips from the Tony Awards for 1972 seem almost surreal, as the announcer names the other nominees, including No, No Nanette, a revival musical from 1925 that telegraphs the chasm between traditional American entertainment and the coming storm (one that dies hard if the acclaim the seriously dated and offensive Broadway adaptation of Mel Brooks’ 1968 film The Producers received is any indication).
Van Peebles’ Broadway experience put him in contact with investors, one of whom dared him to take the stockbroker test. When he flunked, Van Peebles admits it “got my goat a little.” He studied and took the test again, this time passing, and became a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. His success there was a tribute to his theatrical hucksterism, as traders lined up to see which out-of-date tie he was going to wear that day. He even won a place as a financial commentator on a local TV affiliate. Angio presents a commentary he gave on how to ease the homeless crisis—bed sharing between the homeless and hookers who only use their mattresses for part of the day. This outrageous commentary is not only audacious on its face, but it also lampoons the bootstrap ethos of the rich who think the poorer classes should dig themselves out of their holes. Like many of Van Peebles’ ideas and comments, this dig probably sailed right past its intended targets.
Van Peebles is an uncompromising promoter of the African-American community and himself who never shies from his favorite companions—shock and controversy. He has gone from being the geeky black boy in a virtually all-white school in the Chicago suburbs to a womanizer with an unbendable weekly schedule for all his women. Discipline, intelligence, imagination, and self-confidence have made him a totally unique figure who deserved a first-rate film biography. Angio delivered this and so much more with as much aplomb and sociological significance as Van Peebles could ever have wanted. How to Eat Watermelon… is essential viewing for everyone with an interest in film, African-American history and culture, and, of course, self-promotion.