Van Peebles Inc.: Sweetback is Back with a Vengeance in “Baadasssss!”
by Brandon Judell
In 1971, against all odds, Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, and starred in “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” a groundbreaking success. Some say independent movies were never the same again. Why who can ever forget the lines: “You bled my Momma. You bled my Poppa. But you won’t bleed me.” Yes, here was one flick where there’s a black hero, and he lives past the end credits.
Now Melvin’s actor/helmer hunk of a son, Mario, has written, directed, produced, and starred as his pop in a biopic chronicling the making of “Sweetback.” The advanced buzz seems to be signaling a repeat success. In fact, “Baadasssss!” has already garnered two digits up from TV’s favorite thumbers.
For those out of the loop, here’s a controversial film about filmmaking that has sex, humor, pathos, and politics? So what’s not to like?
Well, philosopher bell hooks might be repeating her criticism of the original flick. Grouping together “Sweetback,” “Black Mama” (1975), and “Passing Through” (1977), hooks noted in her book, “Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies,” that all these movies “made by black men at the onset of contemporary feminist movement, simply imposed on representations of black sexuality, and black female sexuality in particular, a pornographic, patriarchal frame.” Well, what film’s perfect?
Sadly, one sequence of events that occurred during the making of “Sweetback” does not make it into “Baadasssss!” Apparently on the DVD version of his movie, Melvin noted he caught a venereal disease during the filming of the “Sweetback” sex scenes. Afterwards, he applied for workman’s compensation and received it.
The following chat with father and son took place in Sony Pictures Classics offices; the film opened Friday.
iW: (to Melvin) When you first saw “Baadasssss!,” what was you reaction? Did you see yourself in your son?
Melvin: Well, actually it was a duality. I’m a editor [at times], and sometimes I’ve had to edit myself. So I just disassociated myself completely from personally what I was viewing, and I saw a movie that I found fascinating. To be frank, I found the protagonist intelligent, nice, etc.
Melvin: At the end, when I could come out of it, “Shit, that was me!” I loved the film. I didn’t see it until [it screened at the] Toronto [International Film Festival]. I just came one day at the end of the shoot. Mario wanted to shoot a clip of me because that was the only time I was there on the set. After I saw the film, he asked, “Dad, what you think?” I told him what I thought. “Like ‘Seabiscuit’ on two legs. The embattled little whores going up against Goliath.” That’s what I thought. It had everything that a movie should have, and I enjoyed it immensely.
But you know the first time you heard your voice on a tape recorder: “Who’s that?” “That’s you.” “That’s me?”
Friends said, “Jesus, it’s exactly you. Mario really got you nailed down, the physicality and so forth.” So I think that probably works. I agree with the guy 100 percent, the guy who was playing Melvin in the film. So that probably was me. You know what I mean? So for me, it was an immense kick.
iW: (to Mario) When “Panther” came out, you said there were two reasons it didn’t do well. One was because the critics were pretty stupid. They didn’t know what they were talking about when it came to the Black Panthers and that era. Secondly, there was also more of a right-wing environment in the country when the film was released. Now with “Baadasssss!,” since many critics don’t have a solid hold on the past, do you think they’ll grasp what you’re going for? What you are chronicling? And though there are politics throughout “Baadasssss!,” do you feel it can work just as an action movie for the action buffs?
Mario: Well, let’s go to the “Panther” bit first. Because we live in a capitalist society, we tend to say a film does well when it makes money. I think that was a difficult film because it’s difficult for us to look at our own dirty laundry. We’ll watch something about some other country and go, “Oh, yes, yes, yes. That’s what’s happening over there.” But over here, it’s different when we see our soldiers doing it. “No! Does that happen on our side, too?” Do you know what I mean?
Mario: But for me, “Panther” was one of my films that I feel was the most successful but not just in economic terms. If I was just looking at economic terms, I’d just make “New Jack City 2, 3 and 4.” That wouldn’t be fulfilling in terms of what I view as successful.
In terms of “Baadasssss!,” I think it’s been interesting because when we played it in Germany, this guy in Berlin who didn’t know much about American film, independent film, or anything about black film, was moved by it. After the screening, he went into the lobby and called his father. He hadn’t talked to his dad in six and a half years. He said, “I just saw a movie about a very complex father and son relationship. And if they can get past what they got past, I want to talk.”
“Baadasssss!” then won the Critics Award at the Floating Festival with Roger Ebert, and that was 80-year-old guys from Florida. Then it just won the audience award in Philadelphia, and that was like folks from the ‘hood who saw the original “Sweetback.” So what’s happening is the audience gets it. “Baadasssss!” also got a standing ovation at Sundance, which has a pretty savvy audience. So the audiences are as varied a my dad’s original crew — and that’s going to be a marketing challenge because people are going: “Wow!”
People are seeing it on social level. Some people just see it as this guy David vs. the Goliath of the studio system. Here’s a guy with an impossible dream. One by one he makes sacrifices and loses, and then only two theaters play the damn movie, and yet you know historically he wins. Here’s a man with the dream, and there’s a love story with a father and son in a way. If that’s the core, then “Baadasssss!” is sort of universal.
iW: When you were trying to make “Panther,” you went to the studios and some of the studio heads asked you if could put a white person into the Black Panthers. Did any studio head, with “Baadasssss!,” ask you to make your father white?
Mario: (Laughs) No, they didn’t ask me that directly. I wouldn’t have been surprised though. They did imply, however, that if the characters were going to be behaving in this level of complexity, that it would better for the film to be more specifically targeted to the independent savvy sort of intelligentsia. That if we wanted to target more towards a mass black audience, we should make it more sort of a hip-hop “Barbershop.”
They thought that the film was too sexy, too political, and I should make Melvin more likable. He wasn’t likable enough. Well, my dad’s from the south side of Chicago, yet he speaks French and German and Dutch. He’s got the French Legion of Honor award; his life is complex and multiracial, and sexy and political. All those things. To take any of those away would make it easier for the marketing guy to slot the film for this audience or that audience, but it would have sort of diminished some aspect of his persona, I thought.
Melvin: May I interject?
Melvin: A number of people have come up to me and said that they enjoyed the film. They never saw the original, but they didn’t feel that they had to see the original which was more soaked in the political content [of its day]. But not having seen “Sweet Sweetback” doesn’t take away anything from “Baadasssss!” because it’s also a story. Listen. We can watch old gladiator films even if we’re not too sure who Tiberius was. But the human aspect of film can drown that out. When we saw “Gladiator,” not five people could remember which part of the Roman Empire was this, that, or the other. The story itself transcended that.
iW: When you see a film today directed by a black director with black stars, do you feel the times have changed? If you were making “Sweetback” today, do you imagine you’d have to be hitting your head against so many walls as you did back then?
Melvin: The truth of the matter is Mario has a lot more juice now than I had back then, and he still couldn’t get the film financed.
iW: So Hollywood hasn’t changed that much?
Melvin: Not the final powers. There’s no one who can greenlight a film that’s a minority or a woman.
iW: So do you think there will ever be a black studio head?
Mario: I’m sure there will.