March 10, 2005
In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles made Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. It not only became the most successful independent film of that year but it also helped kick start a film genre known as Blaxploitation. These films empowered black actors and actresses as they became the heroes of their own films fighting against the prejudices and bigotry that kept them oppressed to funky soundtrack. However, the genre ended up devolving to a point where the films became parodies of themselves, ripe for exploitation by rich, white studio executives.
Melvin’s son, Mario was only a kid when Sweetback was made and his father gave him a pivotal role in the movie. Mario has since grown up to become a respectable actor (Ali) and filmmaker (New Jack City) in his own right. Considering his intimate knowledge of how his father’s film was made, he seems like the perfect choice to make a movie about it. Baadasssss! (2003) is a clever pseudo-documentary that playfully celebrates Melvin Van Peebles’ groundbreaking movie.
Tired of working for the man, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles (son Mario) decides to make a movie for black people that won’t kowtow to the usual racist stereotypes that Hollywood as perpetuated for years. His idea: how an average street hustler becomes a revolutionary. Of course, Melvin’s agent (Rubinek) thinks he’s crazy and tells him that no studio will touch it because of its threatening nature to the status quo. But Melvin is no dummy: he realizes that it has to be entertaining and make money but he also wants to make a movie with people that are never seen in motion pictures. So, he raises the money independently and makes the movie on his own terms.
Mario Van Peebles takes a page out of Oliver Stone’s book of cinematic style by mixing in real news footage from back in the day and mixing it up with stage recreations to tell his story. By including vintage news reel footage he puts the film in its proper historical and social context. We have an idea of the kind of climate that Melvin made his film in and the kind of stakes he was facing. The film’s funky score by Tyler Bates also helps immerse the viewer immediately into the time period without resorting to the usual ‘60s songs we’ve heard a million times.
Mario Van Peebles has directed a lot of genre films that were interesting ideas but never able to transcend their conventions (i.e. Panther). He has really come into his own with Baadasssss! that features a truly inspired performance. This was obviously a personal film that was obviously close to his heart. First and foremost, his movie, like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), is a celebration of cinema: watching and making films. Melvin was passionate about his art and this, coupled with an unflappable tenacity, resulted in cinematic history. Like Wood before him, Melvin was dedicated to his craft and not afraid to make his movie guerilla-style with an inexperienced, rag-tag crew who worked for nothing. They were persuaded by his charisma and passion.
First up is an audio commentary by Mario and Melvin Van Peebles. Melvin recalls his memories of making Sweetback while Mario talks about how authentic he tried to make his own movie compared to the actual events. They banter in an engaging, entertaining and informative track that is loaded with fascinating anecdotes from back in the day.
“The Birth of Black Cinema” is a 21-minute featurette on the making of Baadasssss! People like Bill Cosby, Ossie Davis, John Singleton and Michael Mann talk about how revolutionary Melvin’s film was—it challenged the traditional stereotypes. This is a very informative doc as it provides the political and social climate that his film was made in. This is not your typical fluff promo.
“The Premiere” is footage from the film’s gala with the cast being interviewed as they walk the red carpet.
“American Cinematheque Q&A with Melvin Van Peebles” is a 31-minute interview with the man himself. He talks about how his son got Baadasssss! made. Originally, the studio wanted to make it more white-bread and then another wanted him to put in all kinds of hip hop tunes (a la Booty Call). Melvin comes across as an extremely interesting, thoughtful man and this is an excellent interview.
Finally, there is a gallery of various poster designs for the movie.
This is a fascinating look at how the legendary film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was made. It is not only Mario Van Peeble’s tribute to his father but a passionate love letter to cinema itself, wrapped up in a funky, funny and thought-provoking package.