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Mario Van Peebles on His Father’s Greatest Legacy: ‘He Put Black Power on the Screen for the First Time’

Four days after Melvin Van Peebles' death, his son joined NYFF to salute his father's iconic "Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song."

PANTHER, director Mario Van Peebles with father/writer Melvin Van Peebles on set, 1995, (c)Gramercy Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

“Panther,” director Mario Van Peebles with father/writer Melvin Van Peebles on set in 1995

GramercyPictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

On Wednesday, legendary filmmaking maverick Melvin Van Peebles died at the age of 89. Four days later, his son Mario was onstage to introduce his father’s most iconic achievement, as “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” screened in a new 4K restoration by the Criterion Collection at the New York Film Festival. The outdoor event, taking place in the newly opened NYFF venue of Damrosch Park, served as a timely reminder of the movie’s massive cultural impact as well as its value in proving that movies with Black protagonists had commercial appeal. 

“This film was made at a time when you didn’t really see Black people onscreen with facial hair,” Mario told the crowd, “let alone some of the crazy shit my dad does in this movie.”

In addition to pursuing his own career as an actor and filmmaker, the younger Van Peebles has been the caretaker of his father’s legacy for decades, even playing Melvin in the 2000 biopic “Badasssss!” But that investment in the legacy of the project came later. As a 13-year-old on the set of the 1971 production (where he cameos in the sexually explicit opening scene), Mario said that the representational value of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” wasn’t part of his experience. “I didn’t get the big picture until later,” he said, noting that he later found out his father received death threats as a result of the production. “This was pre-MAGA,” Mario said.

With time, he became more aware of the way the movie fit in alongside other iconoclastic American movies made in the same era. “White folks saw the peace and freedom movement reflected a little bit from films like ‘Easy Rider,’ but we didn’t have that,” Mario said. “So he makes ‘Sweetback’ and puts Black power on the screen for the first time. Audiences at first didn’t know what the heck it was.”

Though the movie is closely associated with the zaniness of the blaxploitation genre (“Shaft” came out the same year), it’s a far more radical gamble, an immersive assemblage of Black struggle and empowerment set to a vibrant Earth Wind and Fire score that bears more in common with avant-garde works of the time than anything more narratively cohesive.

The elder Van Peebles stars as the titular Sweetback, a sex worker raised in a brothel who goes on the lam after beating up a pair of racist cops. The ensuing saga finds Sweetback constantly eluding capture as he sprints across a grimy American landscape riddled with racism and the alienating forces of an industrial society in which marginalized people had been forced to the bottom of the socioeconomic equation. “You saw a lot of flicks with us being the servant class,” Mario said of the time when “Sweetback” was made. “The world is changing and the way we’re reflected onscreen has been colored, or as I call it, the ‘mo’ tea suh?’ tribe. … This was a film about a sex worker who goes from a ‘we’ mentality to a ‘me’ mentality.” 

“Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song”

At first, “Sweetback” was only released in two theaters, in Detroit and Atlanta. But the popularity of the film in those theaters lead it to find a life in wider release, where it ultimately grossed $15 million and was embraced by the Black Panthers. From there, it inspired a range of low-budget Black-centric films in the decade ahead, from “Shaft” to “Superfly” and beyond. Addressing the ensuing blaxploitation genre, Mario said, “Real Hollywood isn’t Black or white, it’s also green.”

Despite its experimental form, Van Peebles was fully capable of more conventional filmmaking, having made two earlier features: “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” which he adapted from his own French-language novel, and “Watermelon Man,” a Columbia Pictures production. Though Van Peebles had a three-picture deal with Columbia, the studio shot down his initial “Sweetback” pitch. “They told him, ‘You can’t even print that in the newspaper,’” Mario said.

Melvin financed the movie out of his own pocket (with a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby) and decided to register the movie as a pornographic project so that he could have his own choice when it came to the crew. “On ‘Watermelon Man,’ the film crew was basically all white men,” Mario said. “He was very firm that he wanted the film crew that looked like America.”

Mario said he often turned to his father for advice. “When I was about to have kids, I asked my dad a bunch of questions. I had a list of shit, all the stuff I wanted to ask him about,” he said. “I asked him if he’d do this film the same way. He said, ‘Yes, son, I had to have WOM factor.’ WOM was ‘word of mouth.’ The movie had to be outrageous enough that with no budget he could get it out there. Whether you loved this movie or hated it, you would talk about it.”

Mario fondly recalled the time his father contacted a film critic after he complained in his review that the dialogue in “Sweetback” was incomprehensible. “My father called him and said, ‘I invite you to see it in the Black community,’” Mario said, adding that the writer attended a screening in Harlem. “Suddenly, he was there with people who understood every word. … There was a real blind spot for folks who were members of the dominant culture.”

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