important movies, but there are only a few that one can say actually changed
the game. One of those few films is Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 underground indie
classic “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”.
Not only did
the film change independent black cinema forever, but independent cinema and
even Hollywood as well.
The film was a box office monster hit with filmgoers
lined up down the block and around the corner, eager to see it, at every
theater it played. It was a film of its time, for its time, and it captured the
black revolutionary fervor of the period like no other film had ever had (or “The
good old days” as I like to them).
underground for a reported $500,000 (that figure seems suspiciously too
high for me) the film was unlike anything that had ever been seen before. To
say that it was a sensation when it first came out is putting it mildly. It’s
one of the very few films that actually inspired another film about the making
of it. I’m referring, of course, to Melvin’s son Mario Van Peebles 2003 film “Baadasssss”
with Mario playing his father.
made the film after a bitter experience making his one and only Hollywood studio
backed film for Columbia Pictures “The Watermelon Man” with Godfrey Cambridge.
He resolved after to never again work in such a stifling and compromising situation, and next wrote, directed, starred in and even composed the music score for his
next project, “Sweet Sweetback,” independently.
film non-union, with an in-the-nick of-time $50,000 donation from Bill Cosby
when he started to run of out money during production, and co-starring, as the
film credits proudly state, “The Black Community”, the film has been the
subject of heated debate ever since its first released, with audiences on both sides
of the fence.
In the film, Van Peebles plays Sweetback, a performer in underground live sex shows (yeah,
it’s that kind of film) who has a radical and political awakening when he savagely
beats two white cops after witnessesing them beating up an innocent black man.
After that. Sweetback is on the run to Mexico for freedom, while being chased by
the authorities, encountering a wide assortment of oddball people along the way, using his wits, skills and even his sexual prowess, if
necessary (like I said, it’s that kind of movie).
final victorious image are the words on the screen: “A BAADASSSSS NIGGER IS
COMING BACK TO COLLECT SOME DUES”. Needless to say, Van Peebles knew exactly
what he was doing – stirring up trouble and outrage. Even when the film got,
what was back then an “X” rating from the MPAA, the ads boldly stated “Rated X –
By an all white jury”. If that didn’t get people into the theater what could?
Some critics have called the film misogynistic, negative and tasteless, and that it merely was
nothing more than a modern day variation of the old stereotype of the oversexed
black buck, dating back to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 “The Birth of a Nation”. But defenders called the film the first true black
revolutionary film of its day and that it should be required viewing by every
back person. (Personally I like to think of it as one of my favorite childhood
stylistically, the film may be crude and “rough around the edges” but
even after more than 40 years, it still retains it power to shock, anger
and, yes, even inspire.
Now the DVD
specialty labels, Vinegar Syndrome and Xenon Pictures, are jointly teaming up
to release “Sweet Sweetback” on blu-ray DVD for the first time sometime later
yet about extras, but it would be impossible for it not to have a ton of specials
features, including a running commentary about the film by Melvin Van Peebles
more, “Sweet Sweetback” is just the first of several upcoming, first time blu-ray
releases of underground black indie films from the 60’s and 70’s, from Vinegar
Syndrome and Xenon. I will write about them all in future articles.
meantime, below is the original trailer for “Sweet Sweetback”: