I recall the very first time I saw Melvin Van Peebles in person, at a Museum Of The Moving Image tribute event in early 2008 for the late St Clair Bourne, who’d recently passed (December 2007).
It was a moment I wouldn’t soon forget.
In short, during the tribute, which had the likes of Armond White, George Alexander, and Esther Iverem as panelists, a number of attendees in the audience lamented the state of this thing we call “black cinema,” mourning the loss of one of its leaders, and the void in leadership his absence left.
While some chose to commiserate with those who we could say were in mourning, Mr Van Peebles, whom I didn’t even realize was in attendance, standing in the rear of the vast theater where the event was being held, opted to instead use the moment to challenge the audience; Specifically, he announced his presence without literally announcing his presence, launching into what I’d describe as a lecture on the virtues of self reliance – his voice, intentional, carrying across the large auditorium.
“Stop complaining and do something… look within yourselves and be your own leader,” was his clarion call, in summary – a mantra that is still very much of influence on his own personal aspirations and motivations, as he told me during our lengthy chat in his New York City apartment some weeks ago, while reliving cherished moments in his life from yesteryear, of which there are several; each a lesson that helped shape and mold the man that he would eventually become.
Just about every head turned to either find out who this bold and abrasive voice belonged to (or already knew it was Melvin Van Peebles, but turned to acknowledge him anyway); the room fell silent as he continued, and remained that way for a few moments after he ended what probably felt like a scolding to some, almost as if shamed.
Others, like myself and the 2 pals I was with that glorious day, instead felt like applauding, because he’d voiced what we were also thinking in that moment, but obviously didn’t have the courage to say, or couldn’t think of a way to say it with tact. It’s one thing if Melvin Van Peebles, one of indie black cinema’s elder statesmen we could say, speaks the words; it’s another thing to hear it from some young “punks” who think they “know it all.”
And don’t be fooled by his slight stature; his confidence is unrivaled. But as he jokingly told me during our meeting, the fact that he doesn’t exactly cut an imposing figure, has actually been to his advantage; most don’t expect him to be as gruff, and others are quick to dismiss him even when they discover that he is – however unwisely.
I relayed that past first personal introduction to Mr Van Peebles, after the realization that he hadn’t seemed to have changed, or rather mellowed, since that memorable moment 4 years ago – still as pugnacious, and hilarious, even as he reaches Octogenarian status. He turns 80 years old this August, and while he seemingly moves a step or two slower, he’s still every bit the enfant terrible I’d always imagined him to be, leading up to my first real-life encounter with him.
Walking into his apartment building, I felt like I was on my way to meet the “black Godfather.” Picturing him behind some lavish desk, his trademark pageboy hat, surrounded by an entourage, smoking a cigar, with a glass of wine within arms reach, I soon realized that I was actually just nervous, not at all really knowing what to expect.
I was certainly prepared with a long list of questions to ask him, thinking this would just be your standard Q&A session with a busy celebrity, expecting to be in and out within 20 minutes. But the reality I would later experience was quite the opposite.
After eventually meeting him at his apartment entrance, initial brief pleasantries exchanged, we got right down to business – his business, that is. He hushed any attempts on my part to be formal and in awe of the position I was in, which meant offering me a glass of red wine and a pastry, requesting that I relax and get comfortable.
I did… Eventually.
Interrupted by a phone call almost immediately, he answered it – his curt manner with whomever was on the other end of the line, made me wonder who it was on the receiving end of the call. When I would later learn that the name of the band he currently headlines is called Laxative (because “we don’t take no shit,” he said), these scattered moments made sense. That he’s consistently blunt was a little jarring initially, throwing me a bit out off rhythm with my questioning, but you learn to quickly adapt; after all, “we don’t take no shit.“
Hanging up the phone after that very first interruption, he said, “at some point it gets easier to just stop giving a fuck, and you just have to let people know how you feel or what you’re thinking,” while I got myself situated, accepting his offered glass of wine and that I get comfortable.
And once settled, to be later joined by Mr. Kevin Harewood (a business partner of Mr Van Peebles, and an avid reader of S&A, who made the initial connection between Melvin and I), what I expected to be a brief Q&A session instead became a 2 1/2-hour conversation that felt more like 3 old friends hanging out and catching up, if I could be so presumptuous to say.
Being the “kid” in the group, I understandably spoke the least; but in listening, I also gained plenty. Experience is the best teacher, as the saying goes, and there were many lessons to be learned from the many years of living I was privileged, in that moment, to be surrounded by.
In the process, I also learned a few things about the many past lives of Melvin that I didn’t know about prior to our meeting – notably, that he was once a crime reporter, that he once ran a ballet school, that he considered being an astronomer, and more – reliving specific stories from each past life that would require pages of prose if I were to retell each one here.
Suffice it to say that I was enthralled for much of the time. He’s a natural storyteller, which means that you probably shouldn’t expect any minimalist answers to questions you ask. Get comfortable.
And he clearly loves telling stories, although the genius in this is that one could easily forget the question that was asked in the first place; “I talk about life,” he said when I wondered whether he ever gets tired of answering questions about Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the one film that most know him for, and the film that most would likely prefer to talk him about if they had the opportunity.
“No, I don’t get tired because I don’t talk about it. I talk about life. I’m from the South Side of Chicago – the hood. Started out selling second hand clothes to winos. So, no, not at all. Sweetback is a perfect example of what is possible, so if that’s what they know, then it’s ok to talk about it. You can use that as a jumping off place for other conversation. I could care less. My job is to get it over with; whatever it takes,” he said.
And after a moment of silence, to emphasize his point, he stated further, looking at me intently “You may not realize this, but you do me a great honor young man,” referring to my interest in wanting to know more about him, and use what I learn via my experience with him to write an article that would be shared with countless others.
“I haven’t complained about anything in 50 years. Somebody hits me and I say, ‘wow I’m still here to get hit,’” he said with an assured grin, and sealing that particular moment with, “Beats working at the post office,” leaning in to take a sip from his glass of red, and then falling back into his seat, ready for whatever would come next.
But, as I would later learn, just don’t ask him what he thinks of the current state of what we call “black cinema.”
Part 2 of this series coming soon…