29th 04 - 2015 | no comment »

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

Director: Ivan Dixon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

For the past few months, the United States has been convulsing through an historic moment, and I mean that statement with what is for me unaccustomed irony. The sometimes violent clashes between the black communities in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and, most recently, in Baltimore are historic, as in déjà vu all over again. Despite mind-boggling advances in technology that have reshaped our world in many ways, the needle toward racial harmony has hardly moved at all. If you don’t believe me, I hold The Spook Who Sat by the Door up as Exhibit A that we haven’t come a long way, baby. This 1973 film, cowritten and coproduced by Sam Greenlee from his 1969 novel of the same name, includes scenes that could have been footage from dozens of news reports made within the past week.

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The film chronicles the activities of the portentously named Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), a black civil rights activist in school who has decided to go the mainstream route to success. He is one of a cohort of black applicants to a CIA affirmative action program foisted upon the agency by the U.S. Senate—hardly a scenario we could imagine today, but also not a sincere effort by the movie senators, who are more worried about approval ratings than equality. The all-male cohort of black hopefuls don’t realize that their white trainers will use every opportunity to eliminate them from contention; they don’t even seem to suspect that the trainers are observing them via a closed-circuit camera while they enjoy cocktails and plot how to land these cushy jobs—not a terribly good recommendation for their fitness to become agents.

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By the end of the comprehensive training and testing, Freeman is the only one to have made the grade. He is appointed section chief of reproduction services, aka photocopying, and remains with the agency for five years before returning to his native Chicago to take a higher-paying job as a social worker. There, the real purpose of his CIA stint becomes clear—to use the skills he acquired to recruit and train guerrilla freedom fighters in all the major urban centers in the country to battle Whitey to a standstill and force the Establishment to grant black Americans freedom in exchange for safe and peaceful streets.

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Greenlee, a native Chicagoan who died in 2014 at the age of 83, was a firebrand and committed Marxist to the end. His book and screenplay provide a graphic depiction of the lumpenproletariat rising up in a people’s revolution against their bourgeois oppressors. After first establishing Freeman as a charismatic leader who can win respect with his muscles as well as his brains, the film shows him recruiting his former gang, the Cobras, to be his first platoon of revolutionaries. Director Dixon shoots parallel scenes and dialogue of Freeman training his men as he was trained at The Farm, a still-relevant example of American forces opportunistically training people who just as opportunistically will turn on them some day. Relying on the invisibility subservient blacks have in white America, Dixon shoots a humorous scene of one of Freeman’s men, dressed like a window washer, going into the mayor’s office and stealing his carousel of pipes right off his desk while the mayor talks on the phone. Conversely, Freeman uses the “high yellow” members of the gang to stage a bank robbery; dressed in business suits, with slicked-down hair, they are assumed to be white not only because of their appearance, but also because blacks are assumed not to have the cunning to pull off such a daring, daylight raid.

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The bourgeoisie and their protectors are represented by Freeman’s lover Joy (Janet League), who leaves him to marry a successful doctor, and his best friend Dawson (J.A. Preston), a Chicago cop. Showing the bourgeoisie selling out their proletarian brothers and sisters to maintain a respectable, comfortable place in society, both Joy and Dawson are quick to turn on Freeman when they realize he is the mysterious “Uncle Tom” who is broadcasting revolutionary messages and organizing the insurrection, beginning with bombing the mayor’s office. The film has no real place for women as active fighters, but Dahomey Queen (Paula Kelly), a black prostitute Freeman hooks up with during his CIA training, becomes an invaluable informer when she overhears the General (Byron Morrow), her white steady “date,” lay plans to go after Freeman—cutting off the head of the snake, as military types put it.

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The most harrowing and resonant part of the film occurs after Shorty (Anthony Ray), a young penny-ante drug dealer Freeman tries to help, is shot in the back by police. The ensuing standoff between riot police and angry members of the community is an all-too-familiar sight these days, one that looks like it will end peacefully until some cops bring German shepherds to the scene. This potent symbol of violence from the 1963 Birmingham civil rights demonstrations inflames the crowd, who tear into the police and torch a car and an apartment building. The handheld camera work gets into the chaos, offering some truly frightening, heart-stopping moments that linger long after the final fade. Faced with the violence that we know is absolutely real from recent events, Freeman’s desperate actions “to be free,” as he puts it, are likely to be met with a good deal of sympathy from a larger portion of today’s audiences.

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Spook has been lumped into the category of blaxplotation films inaugurated by Melvin Van Peebles’ seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and it does share some common aspects of the genre. There are extended shots of a belly dancer undulating for the camera at a nightclub, thrilling action sequences and explosions, and a judo match that roughly correlates to martial arts sequences in these films. The film was also made independent of studio backing; after cobbling together just under $1 million, the producers had to shut down production after they ran out of money, which may account for some sketchy sequences, particularly at the beginning of the film. In a 2013 radio interview of Greenlee, the writer said the production stole some shots in Chicago when the city refused to issue permits for the production, but that Gary, Ind., welcomed them with open arms, even to the extent of lending them a helicopter free of charge to get overhead shots and one impressive shot moving down the middle of a street.

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What Spook does is extend the struggle begun in Sweet Sweetback. Sweetback is a put-upon, ignorant man who struggles to survive. Van Peebles suggests that when next we see Sweetback, he will be coming back to revenge himself on white America. Freeman represents the next step in the struggle for freedom and equality. He’s not scared. He’s both streetwise and worldwise, and he has a philosophy to guide him. The character speaks poignantly about discovering that his grandmother couldn’t read but admonished him to get his education, and how he taught her while pretending that she was teaching him. To Freeman, seeing the light come on in his grandmother’s mind also flipped a switch in him.

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The film has no real resolution, with Freeman wearing his African colors but facing a doubtful, possibly short future. In his day, so-called gangs like the Black Panthers were benevolent forces in their communities; recruiting gangs to be revolutionaries was a plausible plotline in 1969 and even 1973, so hope might have lived in its contemporary audiences. Today, gangs are as ruthlessly self-serving as the many other sectors of American society, and the current assault on the credibility of teachers and public education are undermining the hope and possibilities of those in the underclass. In 2012, “Spook” was added to the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” American film—nonetheless, its relative obscurity and the currency of its vision would have made Freeman very disappointed.

The film is viewable in its entirety on YouTube.


1st 03 - 2009 | 13 comments »

How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It) (2005)

Director/Writer: Joe Angio

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.


24th 10 - 2007 | 6 comments »

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)/Baadasssss! (2003)

Directors: Melvin Van Peebles/Mario Van Peebles

One Punch, Twice the Damage: The Double Bill Blogathon

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Peebles.bmpBaadasssss! 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.


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