Judge Bill Gibron's got a plan to stick it to the Man.
How to get the man's foot outta your ass!
It was like an earthquake when it hit. No one had anticipated such a shocking cultural impact. The studios had scoffed at it, refusing to even consider funding such a fiasco. Those surrounding its creator, the infamous black filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, felt it would be career suicide.
With a three-picture deal from Columbia TriStar hanging in the balance, and a wicked racial comedy, Watermelon Man, about to open nationally, Melvin was on the verge of some manner of mainstream acceptance. He needed to carefully consider his next movie move. Van Peebles's eventual response was so radical as to be simultaneously genius and jest. He would challenge the racial stereotypes Hollywood had fostered for years, and give disaffected urban audiences an angry antihero to whom they could really relate. Van Peebles would control every aspect of the production, making sure that it stayed true to his vision and worked by his rules alone.
When the film opened in an inner city Detroit theater in 1971, it represented a shift so seismic that the ripple effect still hasn't quite subsided. For the emergent Afrocentric movement in Black America in the 1970s, fresh from the deaths of Dr. King and Malcolm X, it represented the gauntlet being thrown down against "the Man." It marked the time to stand up and be counted. It tapped into an entire mindset of anger, personal pride, and social unease, signaling the end of the "Yassuh Massa" mentality in Tinsel Town forever. And time would only reassert its monumental importance. Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song was, and remains, a milestone of outsider cinema, a testament to the revolutionary spirit of its half-insane instigator. Now Melvin's son, Mario Van Peebles, has taken his father's story of struggle and survival and from it crafted one of the best movies of 2004, a docudrama revisiting of Sweetback's Baadasssss! birth.
Facts of the Case
It's 1970, and Melvin Van Peebles (Mario Van Peebles, Solo, Ali) is a hot commodity. His race-based satire starring Godfrey Cambridge, Watermelon Man, is about to be released, and along with Gordon Parks and Ossie Davis, Van Peebles is only one of three token directors of color in Hollywood. The studios all want to work with him, and are eager to discuss his next project. Pressured by his agent Howie (Saul Rubinek) to stay within the comedy genre, Melvin has a potential three-picture deal dangled in front of his face. All Van Peebles has to do is play by the rules of Hollywood and his success seems assured.
But there is something eating away at the filmmaker, a pain that just won't go away. Seeing civil rights leaders assassinated, and realizing with the death of the Kennedys that reform from the government was too far off in the distance, Van Peebles is inspired. He will fight the Man on the only turf he knows—the cinema screen. In a fever pitch, he crafts a basic filmmaking manifesto as well as the basic outline for a film, and pitches it to his agent. It is resoundingly rejected. No studio will look at it, and other regular avenues of financing are not even interested in such an incendiary project. Knowing that going independent is the only way to protect his vision, Van Peebles calls on an old friend—the hippy-dippy counterculture creature Bill Harris (Rainn Wilson, Six Feet Under, Almost Famous)—to function as executive producer. When all the possible backers fail to fulfill their promises, Van Peebles decides to simply go it alone. Not only will he produce, write, and direct his magnum opus, he will finance it and star in it as well.
Thus Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song is born. With help from a multicultural crew, including cameraman Jose Garcia (Paul Rodriguez, A Million to Juan, Rat Race) and ghetto giant Big T (Terry Crews, Friday After Next, Soul Plane) on boom mic, as well as black porn producer Clyde Houston (David Alan Grier, In Living Color, Jumanji) along to keep the unions in check, Van Peebles plots his course. No independent production runs smoothly, and when the cash eventually runs out, Van Peebles turns to an unlikely source, comedian Bill Cosby (T.K. Carter, The Steve Harvey Show, My Favorite Martian), for additional funds. Yet once the movie is completed—not without some major personal and professional problems—the filmmaker can't get it distributed. As with any other aspect of its creation, finding someone who will show the movie is equally filled with promise and disappointment. It will take a business risk, and a leap of faith, to see this piece of Baadasssss! cinema stir the prejudice pot it long considered unmovable.
It's rare when one film can claim so many major influences that it can stand as an example of everything that's right—and potentially wrong—with a genre or movement. But for Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, the proof is in the preaching. Melvin Van Peebles' raw, ferocious labor of love sparked a revolution in independent filmmaking, ushered in a new era for the portrayal of minorities on the big screen, and formed the basis for the blaxploitation movement that ruled the box office throughout the early-to-mid-'70s.
Sweetback became a symbol of rebellion and community pride, a chance for the cinematic shackles to be cast aside for a final time, with hopes that they would never return to a Mantan Moreland / Stepin Fetchit slur of simpleton stereotyping. While it would also go on to inspire some of the more insipid, as well as more derogatory, portrayals of the urban experience ever cast upon the silver screen, it would stand as that famed first shot, a cinematic big bang that finally reset the restrictions on race-based filmmaking for all time. Over the decades, as Dolemite and Superfly, Shaft and Black Caesar expanded and exploited the notion of the hero as hard-assed honky hater, a new, negative facet of this refreshing reimagining was exposed, setting the stage for the gang bang gangsta gratuitousness of the '80s and '90s. Indeed, if it did nothing else, Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song opened up the floodgates, allowing the good, the bad, and the ugly through the turnstiles to offer up their own, occasionally offensive view of the black experience in the USA.
As with most major motion picture statements within our strained social structure, the making of Sweetback was as compelling as, and perhaps even more than, the film that resulted. Relying on diaries his father published after the making of the movie, as well as additional writings on the film that have found their way onto bookshelves over the years, Melvin Van Peebles's movie-star son Mario has provided a definitive look at how Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song came into being.
As a motion picture proclamation, Baadasssss! is Mario Van Peebles's Bamboozled, a brave biography that—at least on the surface—wants to tell the simple story of the director-cowriter-star's father and his struggles to make his personal vision for a new urban cinema come to life. And on that level, it is as successful as any other making-of motion picture. It is far more truthful than something like Ed Wood, while avoiding many of the clichés and conceits of other behind-the-scenes stories like the otherwise excellent RKO 281. But Van Peebles does something far more substantial with his narrative. He surrounds it in the temperament of the time, using he civil rights revolution in American society as the backdrop for his drama. Both Van Peebles' will argue that, like a match to a powder keg, Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song exploded onto the landscape, changing the dynamic and reinterpreting the dialogue forever. No longer would the minority take a back seat to the majority mindset. Baadasssss! wants to explain how such a shift could happen, and more importantly, why it was necessary. And it succeeds spectacularly.
Baadasssss! is more than just one man's vision played out over 108 amazing minutes. It indeed covers more important ground than just the making of a movie. Via the amazing work of the Van Peebleses—Melvin in 1971, Mario in 2004—we come to understand an entire movement, a harsh, hampering social mindset, and the need for a catalyst for lasting change. Though the film never comes right out and says it (it only hints at it in several excellent speeches), the main issue inherent in Baadasssss! is the lack of the black man's bankability. While argued as an issue of economics (urban audiences wanted certain kinds of films—read: crass comedies), it's the hidden agenda of race that permeates all decisions in late-'60s / early-'70s entertainment, a white flight concept of fun that demanded all races conform to a Caucasian concept of their acceptability. After all, the palefaced majority bought the movie tickets, so pandering was important. Sweetback showed that, not only was there an untapped market ready to spend its money, but that the ennui of the industry was ready to be disputed. Like Easy Rider did for the counterculture, or American Graffiti and The Godfather did for the auteur, Sweetback placed Afrocentric cinema on the map for the first time, and spawned a billion (occasionally buffoonish) imitators to the crown. Equally fascinating in its politics as in its procedures, Baadasssss! explains what a risk Sweetback was, not only for its maker, but for the millions waiting to sample its radical message.
Standing at the center of this maelstrom is mastermind Mario Van Peebles, perhaps the most unlikely of affecting auteurs. Those who have followed his career understand that, as an actor, he is mostly a combination of matinee idol good looks encased in a far too uninvolved character. There is a kind of disconnect in his performances, an "I shall overcome" conspicuousness to how he handles material that he usually feels is beneath him. As a director, his films follow set formulas and utilize hackneyed happenstance to make their sledgehammer statements. But something magical has happened to the man with Baadasssss! Instead of going back to his book of tired tricks, instead of crafting a basic biography with lots of obvious bows to Sweetback's mythology, he simply stands up and tells the truth. Both as a performer and as a filmmaker, Mario has never been better, utilizing all the tools of the trade—both in front of and behind the lens—to create one of the best films of the year, as well as one of the most potent portrayals of early independent cinema ever presented. He lets the role he plays, father Melvin, suffer from ego and delusions of self-importance, an angry arrogance that threatens to destroy everything around him. As a director, he finds images and symbols to encapsulate the entire black experience in America—from slavery to segregation.
Indeed, Baadasssss! is a movie filled with hidden iconography to racial tension and penetrating prejudice. Van Peebles never announces the allusions, and you have to pay close attention to the widescreen compositions to catch them, but they certainly exist. When the union members step in to check on Sweetback's pornographic status (the only way the production could avoid labor mandates), they look surprisingly like the skinheads of the radical white supremacy movement. Bill Cosby, instrumental in helping to get Sweetback made, is also shown surrounded by Caucasian sycophants, basically basking in his celebrity while dictating and directing what he does. The only member of the crew to leave after Van Peebles announces the film's start date is a somber blond, and the Western being filmed as Melvin speaks to his anxious agent contains a classic shiftless slave character who remains a shuffling mumbler when the director yells cut. Indeed, we see him shoveling horse manure in the background later on. Peppering his plot with such subtle, covert moments highlights the greater mission of both Baadasssss! and the movie that inspired it.
What both Van Peebleses want to prove with their movies is that the problem with race is deeper than the illiterate rantings of the conservative cracker, or dispassionate distaste of the suburbanite. Race is an ingrained aspect of all parts of American life, from the everyday interaction of people to the entertainment that fashions their fancies. Certainly, change was required from the outside inward. But someone also had to lay the groundwork for the opposite ideal, to fashion something that would function from the inside outward, guaranteeing victory with a two-front approach. While it may not have signaled the end of prejudice, Sweetback did certify that things could never go back to the way they were before. Thank God.
But perhaps the bigger charge is left to play out within the pained, poignant family dynamic between Melvin, his teenage son Mario, and his own retired tailor father. Baadasssss! presents the battle between parent and child as a mirror of the race war raging in America. Young Mario is seen as a naïve, optimistic innocent looking at society through the unaware eyes of youth. Melvin is the former indentured servant fighting for freedom and autonomy while retreating to "traditional" values to raise his offspring. The result is a complex, incomplete portrait of generations expanding and splitting, of dads failing to connect with their kids, and all the possible refuse that results from such a breach. One of the main complaints in current-day African America is the lack of strong male role models to help nurture and teach the young. Fathers are an extinct species in most urban households, and Baadasssss! argues that their influence has both a positive and a negative aspect. We witness both, free of judgment and justification, and realize that the issue is not as straightforward as the professional pundits would have you believe.
The family conceit also extends to the near-Utopian aspect of the crew Van Peebles created to make his movie. With a self-imposed policy to have at least 50% of the staff be members of the disenfranchised—ethnically, culturally, or financially—there could easily be a saccharine Central Casting feeling to the concept. But Baadasssss! makes sure that we get distinct, individual voices for each of the characters. This means that Big T is not just a pissed-off brother, but a sensitive man looking to break out of the chains of preconception. Jose Garcia is not just some Hispanic hack, but a complex man with both physical and social ills. Even the women surrounding Van Peebles and the production, from über-ditz Priscilla to voice-of-reason Sandra, are given depth and weight via their words and ideas. While it may be high and mighty to think that the togetherness of a crew under pressure to make a movie could stand as a symbol for universal unity among the races, Baadasssss! argues that such monumental changes come from these microcosm moments. All that's needed is someone to come along and champion them.
As a straightforward film, Baadasssss! is magnificent, an amazing media amalgamation that plays like a staged documentary in combination with a cinema verité slice of moviemaking life. It utilizes obvious directorial flair (intercutting between the recreated and real Sweetback, the mirror-into-the-past trick) with some powerful, pitch-perfect performances to solidify its amazing entertainment value. This is a smart, funny film with a lot of heart and even more chutzpah. It champions ego as it dignifies defiance. There are great moments of emotion in the film, as when young Mario sees his father passed out on the cutting room floor and begs him to see a doctor, or when Melvin confronts a disgruntled crewmember with fire and brimstone. Each and every actor is expertly cast, faultlessly capturing both the personality of the past within Mario's modern missive of harmony.
If there is one minor complaint about Baadasssss!, it is that it feels too short. Though nearly two hours in length, we get so caught up in the mood and atmosphere of change and challenge that we'd more than welcome another hour of interplay. It's a demonstration of Mario Van Peebles's prowess as a director that we get so lost in his narrative that we'd follow the film for as long as it wants to continue. Along with a cast that easily embodies the passion of the production as well as the temperament of the time, Baadasssss! is a solid sleeper, one of the best films of the year, brilliantly illustrating how one of the greatest genre busters of all time was created.
Employing scenes from the original Sweetback with newly created material and standard storytelling, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image offered by Columbia TriStar is a celebration of color. Vibrant, vital, and visually stunning, the DVD transfer is a true time capsule of the look, the fashion, and the feeling of 1970. Van Peebles's interesting compositional choices, along with artistic framing and frequent film stock changes, means that this movie is an imaginative, as well as an intellectual, treat. On the auditory end, the soundtrack is also reminiscent of the Earth Wind and Fire-formed music from the original Sweetback score. Using those musings as a foundation, the new compositions compliment Baadasssss! perfectly, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround serves the sounds well. There is a nice array of immersive elements here, a chance to experience some channel-challenging choices in ambiance and tone. From a purely technical standpoint, Baadasssss! does not look like the low budget, $1 million, shot-in-18-days production it is. This is one polished piece of professional mainstream filmmaking.
Befitting a film of this importance, Columbia TriStar also serves up a fine selection of bonus features, each one adding necessary context to both Baadasssss! and Sweetback's flights under the Tinsel Town radar. The documentary The Birth of Black Cinema discusses the impact Melvin's film had on the culture, as well as explaining how Mario's movie came along. We hear from Michael Mann, famed director of Manhunter, Collateral, and Last of the Mohicans, about how he came to back the project (Sweetback was the first film he and his future wife saw together). Many of the original participants portrayed in the film get a chance to speak for themselves—including an incredibly insightful Bill Cosby. While far too short at 22 minutes, it is a nice introduction to the Baadasssss! / Sweetback saga. Equally enthralling is a 30-minute Q&A with director Melvin Van Peebles at the American Cinematheque. Focusing more on Sweetback than Baadasssss! (naturally, since Melvin maintains he kept his distance from son Mario's movie), this interview is lively, brash, and incredibly in-depth. As feisty and fierce as ever, Van Peebles explains how Sweetback's story is really a trilogy, and how it is probably impossible to make the sequels in today's heavily restrictive climate. Along with a junket-style featurette from the premiere, and a look at the differing marketing strategies for the movie poster, the basic bonuses are excellent.
But by far, the best extra here is the full-length commentary track featuring Melvin and Mario Van Peebles. Functioning as a supplement to the movie and the making of Sweetback, this genial, gentle narrative is one of the reasons why DVD is so dynamic. Both filmmakers marvel at the finished product, praising its truth and temperament. The film uses the concept of filmed testimonials without the benefit of hindsight, and each Van Peebles applauds and marvels at how effective such an approach can be. We learn which characters are composites (Bill Harris) and which are dead-on (Ossie Davis as Melvin's forceful father)—Melvin states that perhaps 99% of the movie is true to life. From the anecdotes about problems in the past to the discussion of how Hollywood tried to "hip-hop up" the story, this is a great discussion of an equally amazing movie, and is a necessity for any fan of either film.
Some will suggest that Shaft is the ultimate example of radical racial cool and significant social destigmatizing. For a more ghettofied, funked-up mentality, people will applaud Rudy Ray Moore and his cornball kung fu fighting fool Dolemite. But when one takes a true critical look at the foundations of blaxploitation and the real reasons why the early '70s saw a radical departure in the portrayal of race in the movies, Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song stands miles above the fray. As a volatile attack against the modern minstrel show mentality of Hollywood, as well as a wanton wish-fulfillment force of nature for the percolating "Black is Beautiful" movement, Melvin Van Peebles wanted to convey a cinematic statement of power to the people, to showcase all the faces that Norman Rockwell never painted.
After 33 years, Melvin's filmmaker son Mario has crafted an equally expressive, unbelievably insightful look at the making of this milestone and the people behind the production. More than just a backstage saga of how a famous movie got made, it's a potent piece of propaganda, a distinctive narrative of a definitive moment in time. The chance to re-experience history is rare in the media. Most want to sugarcoat the past or paint the particulars to fit their specific agendas. But Baadasssss! does something remarkable. It places us squarely in the middle of a moment and makes us actually feel it. It walks in the shoes of its predecessor and stands upon its shoulders to shout to the mountains. Three decades ago, Melvin Van Peebles started a revolution. Baadasssss! is the resplendent result of all his efforts.
Get the f*ck out this Courtroom. Baadasssss! is not guilty and free to put its foot directly up the Man's ass!
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Scales of Justice
• Full Length Audio Commentary with Directors Melvin and Mario Van Peebles
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