Multi-hyphenate talent (director, writer, composer, actor, author) Melvin Van Peebles has died at the age of 89. The news was announced on Wednesday by The Criterion Collection and Janus Films, which shared it on behalf of the entire Van Peebles family. The “giant of American Cinema” passed away on September 21 at home with his family.
Van Peebles gave American independent cinema exactly what it needed, when it needed it most: an explosive shake-up, with his unfiltered expression of Black consciousness and energetic style. The anarchic 1971 blaxploitation classic “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” undeniably shifted the course of American film history, and it was just one piece of a remarkably varied career that also encompassed forays into European arthouse cinema (“The Story of a Three Day Pass”), Hollywood comedy (“Watermelon Man”), Broadway productions (“Don’t Play Us Cheap”), novels, and performances. He was a transformative artist whose biting observations of social mores, unapologetic radicalism, and vision established a model for Black creative independence.
Born in Chicago in 1932, Van Peebles graduated with a B.A. in literature from Ohio Wesleyan University and less than two weeks later, joined the Air Force in which he served for nearly four years. His early work, including the book “The Big Heart,” eventually led him to filmmaking. His first short, “Pickup Men for Herrick,” was made in 1957 and quickly followed by others. Though Hollywood initially rejected Van Peebles’ bid for feature filmmaking, his globe-trotting nature eventually led to earning more admirers and accolades across the world.
In the early ’60s, he moved to France, where he continued to write, make films, and even launch his debut album. His first feature, “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” won an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and subsequently caught the eye of Hollywood brass. In 1970, he made his studio debut with the Columbia Pictures film “Watermelon Man.”
His followup feature was the groundbreaking “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” which privately funded with his own money, and directed, scripted, edited, wrote the score, and even directed the marketing campaign. The film helped kickstart the blaxploitation craze in American cinema, and in 2020, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The iconic creator continues to be celebrated today, even just this week, as the New York Film Festival will this weekend host a 50th anniversary screening of his landmark film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” A Criterion Collection box set, “Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films” will be released next week, and a revival of his play “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” is slated for a return to Broadway next year.
In a brief statement on his father’s passing, Mario Van Peebles, his son and longtime creative collaborator, said, “Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”