NEWS & VIEWS OF PHILLIPS SINCE 1976
Wednesday July 6th 2022

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Something I Said: Mario and Melvin

By DWIGHT HOBBES

The original title of Mario Van Peebles’ Baadasssss! (Sony Pictures, 2003) was How To Get The Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass, entirely fitting for the social commentary his father Melvin Van Peebles’ film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Yeah, Inc., 1971) put forth in a time when grassroot black America had grown sick and tired of this country kicking us around to keep us down. Indeed, Baadasssss! is a dramatized, making of historic document, looking at what went into Melvin returning the favor and putting his foot in American cinema’s behind, profoundly challenging its cherished tenet of supremacist propaganda.

There is a reason, after all, The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense lauded it, in Huey Newton’s words as “the first truly revolutionary…[film]” that, in the opening credits, starred “The Black Community,” It became required viewing for Party members. There is the same reason Bill Cosby, who’d narrated CBS’ Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed three years earlier, stepped in with a $50,000 loan to complete funding after Columbia Studios suits turned their backs and left production high and dry. Neither was going to see this landmark depiction of black reality go by the wayside. The days of demeaning portrayals of mammies and shiftless men were done.

There was a downside. It pried the door loose for Spike Lee, which continued to revolutionize cinema, but also ushered in an era of the new, “blaxploitation” stereotype: studs and sexpots – even if scores of actors did get work.

These days it no longer turns the world upside down when black filmmakers including, finally, female producers and directors have something serious to say. For which we can thank a scrappy brother – the late Melvin Van Peebles – who made history on a shoestring budget of $150,000 (unfortunately bouncing a check to then-fledgling Earth, Wind & Fire) in just under three weeks. We can also be grateful to Mario Van Peebles for honoring that legacy with an unflinching tribute just as hard hitting as the original film.

Theatrical release poster from Melvin Van Peeble’s 1971 film (public domain/Wikipedia)

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