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Movie Corner: Melvin Van Peebles

He’s the Man
Melvin Van Peebles (1932-2021)

Melvin Van Peebles. Photo by John Matthew Smith

By HOWARD McQUITTER II

The African American filmmaker-actor Melvin Van Peebles, a fiercely independent filmmaker, could make memorable and remarkable films on a shoestring budget such as the 1971 bombshell film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song about a Black pimp who kills two policemen for beating up a Black militant and how he eludes law enforcement. (His son Mario, is also an actor/director.) And with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, in particular, but in conjunction with his body of work (his directorial debut is Watermelon Man[1970] in Hollywood), the man is often known as the “Godfather of Black cinema”. (The late Black director Gordon Parks is also a modern pioneer of Black cinema.)

Mr. Melvin Van Peebles graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a B. A. in 1953. He decided to travel heavily in Europe, Mexico and the United States taking on jobs such as postal worker, painter, street performer and for a while in the air force. Fluent in French, while he lived in Paris he wrote several French-language novels, including La Permission (1967), turning it into his first feature film. The genre is a romantic drama released in France, and in the United States (as The Story of a Three-day Pass) the next year.

Van Peebles in Hollywood used largely nonprofessional actors and technicians, usually African Americans. He fit well in the blaxploitation era drawing huge success with African American audiences and drawing much criticism from many white critics. Violence, nudity, scurrility, gangs and drugs dominated much of not onlySweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but in many blaxploitation films by him or other directors. But what’s often misunderstood by many viewers – both Black and white – of blaxploitation films, the messages are really anti-drug in nature. Feeding into the backdrop of Van Peebles’ films, as well as other blaxploitation directors, is whatever challenges Black people faced on a daily basis lies at the feet of “The Man”. The idea of many truisms Van Peebles displayed on issues of race subsequently unnerved many white people, including those working in Hollywood.

Van Peebles was a prolific writer of books, music, lyrics, including not only acting but writing the book, music, and lyrics for the stage musical Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death which opened off-Broadway and then to Broadway in 1971-72.

In 1977, Mr. Van Peebles became one of four credited screenwriters on the film Greased Lightning, about the life of pioneering Black NASCAR driver Wendell Scott. He’s also involved with two more Broadway musicals in the 1980s.

Van Peebles no doubt helped to open more doors for other Black directors such as Spike lee, Barry Jenkins, Ava Marie DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Regina King, Steve McQueen, Kasi Lemmons, John Singleton, F. Gary Gray, Antoine Fuqua, Carl Franklin and others. Yes, Van Peebles is “The Man”.

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