“From the very beginning, back in 1957, people were always commenting on my films being a little weird in subject matter, and the angles I used, and the superimpositions and things like that. Me, I figured that it came from the fact that I was self-taught and missed the technological colonization of the white aesthetic. Anyhow, back then everybody just thought I was crazy.”–Melvin Van Peebles, “The Real Deal: What It
DIRECTED BY: Melvin Van Peebles
FEATURING: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, John Gallaghan
PLOT: An African American boy grows to manhood in a brothel, where he is nicknamed “Sweetback” for his sexual prowess and taught to perform in live sex shows when he reaches adulthood. One night two detectives perform a fake arrest on Sweetback as part of a political scheme; but when they beat a black activist while Sweetback watches, he beats the two policemen into a coma in a fit a righteous rage. The bulk of the film follows the fugitive as he makes his way toward the Mexican border on foot, staying one step ahead of the cops as his legend grows within the black community.
- Melvin Van Peebles’ personal history is colorful, to say the least. He began his career making short films, and one feature, in France. On the strength of these Columbia Pictures invited him to direct a feature film. His first Hollywood feature, the racial satire Watermelon Man, was a small hit. Columbia offered him a three picture deal, but he chose to make Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song instead.
- Van Peebles says that he played the role himself because he couldn’t find an established black actor willing to take it due to the fact that they pay was so low and Sweetback only has six lines of dialogue in the film.
- Van Peebles says he actually had sex with the actresses while shooting film’s sex scenes, and contracted gonorrhea from one. He says he applied to the director’s guild for compensation and that they were so surprised by the claim that they paid him. He then used the money to buy more film.
- The soundtrack was written by Van Peebles and performed by a pre-fame Earth, Wind and Fire, the same year their debut album. The check bounced.
- Van Peebles ran out of money while filming Sweetback and begged investors to help him finish the movie. Finally, Bill Cosby loaned him $50,000, interest-free, to finish the movie. The film went on to gross $4.1 million at the box office and eventually earning more than $10 million. Van Peebles was able to keep all the profits himself.
- Sweetback was rated X by the MPAA and prints were often screened with up to 9 minutes of sex removed, inspiring Van Peebles to promote the movie with the sensational (but technically accurate) tagline, “Rated X by an all-white jury!”
- The remarkable story behind the making of Sweetback is told in the fictionalized 2003 film Baadasssss!, written, directed by and starring Van Peebles’ son Mario. Mario had also played Sweetback as a boy in Baadassss Song, where he was pressured into performing a sex scene with an adult actress.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sweetback running. Runner-up: Sweetback sprinting. We also considered Sweetback loping, Sweetback jogging, and Sweetback trotting.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sex will make you a man; the Good Dyke Fairy Godmother; lizard lunch
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD Take a radical experimental filmmaker with narcissistic tendencies, give him $150,000 dollars (in 1971 money) and an amateur cast and crew, give him carte blanche to make a Black Power film with lots of sex scenes, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the result. You’d think it was a deconstructionist version of a blaxploitation film, except that it was made before the blaxploitation formula existed.
Original trailer for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song
COMMENTS: In 1971 the Civil Rights movement was almost two Continue reading