“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 decades old, but little had changed for many African Americans living in poverty and suffering from institutionalized racism. Not only that, but both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, the movement’s great symbols and hopes, had been gunned down. Progress was being made and the black man had gotten a taste of freedom, but still felt marginalized and excluded from American society. Patience was running thin and militant sentiment was rising; race riots happened several times per year. But these realities seldom made it to movie screens, and if they were hinted at it was only in works by white filmmakers. In movies before about 1960, blacks on film, for the most part, were either servants, clowns, criminals, or jazz musicians; after 1960, they were mostly Sidney Poitier. The one thing they were not is powerful, angry, and threatening to white peace of mind. Melvin Van Peebles set out to change all that with a movie in which the hero, while oppressed, was nevertheless strong, dangerous, and a threat to the status quo. Sweetback dominates the white characters: he conquers the women with his sexuality, and beats the men both by lashing out physically and by outwitting them intellectually, surviving despite their superior numbers and resources. With Sweetback Van Peebles helped to usher in the era of the blaxploitation movie: hip and bloody wish-fulfillment vehicles in which the black characters were often technically criminals, but always put one over on devious and bigoted white men, to the delight of urban audiences. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song starred “the black community” and was dedicated to “all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man.” It was actually intended as a call to revolution and not a true exploitation picture, like most of the genre, but it nevertheless had plenty of the nudity, blood, funky fashion and funkier music that would form a huge part of the movement’s popular sleaze appeal, and that would be better epitomized in hits like Shaft (which came out a few months later), Superfly, and Pam Grier’s Coffy and Foxy Brown.
Van Peebles honed his filmmaking skills not in Watts but in France, and the film’s avant-garde style bears the hallmarks of the nouvelle vague as much as it does American outsider films of the period. The narrative is almost entirely subjective; most of it is Sweetback’s disjointed and dreamlike flight from the cops. His employer delivers a long monologue (partly delivered while he’s sitting on the toilet) advising Sweetback to “hibernate like a bear… can you dig it?” and in the very next scene our hero’s suddenly in custody and being interrogated by two cops, with no explanation of what happened. Later, the erstwhile gigolo wanders into a funeral service in a makeshift church set up in what looks to be an abandoned building, led by a pastor in a dashiki and zebra hat who pauses his eulogy to advise the fugitive “they’re looking for you, you’re as hot as little sister’s twat!,” before Sweetback goes upstairs to “the farm,” which seems to be a room holding a distressed topless woman, then returns to the hallway to resume his conversation with the priest, who now pontificates on his role to sell his parishioners “a little bit of happiness from the happy land” while offering to say a “black Ave Maria” for Sweetback… and so it goes. Sweetback’s occasional companions and helpers, conductors on a modern Underground Railroad, show up with no context or introduction. As his legend grows, later sequences look like candid documentary footage of the cameraman asking random people on the street about Sweetback. Such scenes frustrate anyone looking for a coherent story, although audiences at the time didn’t mind; they only cared that Sweetback was spitting in the Man’s face, and getting away with it.
Just as he avoids bourgeois narrative, Van Peebles adapts his visuals from experimental film rather than Hollywood. Like in the works of Jonas Mekas or Stan Brakhage, the camera is mostly handheld, and often swings wildly to emphasize Sweetback’s unmoored existence, or zooms disorientingly, going in and out of focus on a whim. Solarization, double images, and split screens are frequently deployed, particularly in the long running montages. One of my favorite techniques shows a pair of negative image legs pumping their superimposed way across the screen over footage of Sweetback running in the opposite direction; willy-nilly, directionless havoc suggesting an existence of eternal flight and rootlessness. The generally poor lighting leaves the nocturnal scenes indistinct; along with authentically amateurish acting and bad sound, these technical flaws actually contribute to the film’s underground cred. It’s as if we are watching footage secretly shot by a cameraman sneaking along on Sweetback’s journey. The audio is as experimental as the visuals. At one point the police commissioner desperate to capture Sweetback picks up a telephone only to hear the sound of two dispatchers talking at once, overlaid with the sounds of sirens; he slams down the phone in disgust. Another conversation, a digression about a foster mother who takes in black orphans who are later taken away by the state, is looped so that it repeats five or six times. Music is a crucial element in Van Peebles design. Ecstatic gospel singers belt out “This Little Light of Mine” as Sweetback loses his virginity, and near the end of his run an unseen chorus starts singing directly to him: “You talkin’ revolution Sweetback!” The slightly dissonant funk soundtrack was something never heard before on film at the time, but Van Peebles makes it even stranger by occasionally layering one riff on top of another.
Van Peebles made a lot of hay about his work being “rated X by an all-white jury,” but he was being disingenuous for marketing purposes. It wasn’t the film’s racial politics that earned him that scarlet “X,” but the film’s abundant, perverse sex. Our hero is a priapic god; his very name references to his virility. He’s the star attraction at a sex show hosted by a (literal) fairy and preceded by a gender-bending lesbian warmup session. On his flight he gets help from sometimes reluctant females by overcoming their resistance with his overwhelming machismo; once the ladies are in his arms, they can’t resist his sweet stuff. Of course, most shocking of all is the rightfully notorious scene where the brothel’s towel boy (played by Van Peebles’ then 13-year-old son Mario) loses his virginity to a happy hooker serving up a freebie, emerging from the sordid tryst as a real man (mustache and all). This scene, which is even worse than the similar child sex bit in Sweet Movie, is morally indefensible, and I won’t try to defend it, except to say that Mario escaped the trauma intact, and what’s done is done. But the sex wasn’t only controversial to whites; in fact, although the black community (and particularly the Black Panthers) widely embraced the film, the erotic element caused blowback among some black intellectuals who bristled at the stereotype of the virile black buck whom even white women find irresistible. Lerone Bennett wrote a scathing essay in Ebony magazine (titled “The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland”) castigating Van Peebles for embracing this “Black Stud” archetype at the expense of a meaningfully empowerment image: “…it is necessary to say frankly that no one ever f***ed his way to freedom. And it is mischievous and reactionary to suggest to black people in 1971 that they are going to be able to sc**w their way across the Red Sea. F***ing will not set you free. If f****ing freed, black people would have celebrated the millennium 400 years ago [asterisks in original].”
Even putting aside the reservations about sex, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song is problematic. It’s ultimately not a successful movie—the lack of narrative makes it a chore to sit through, even with the frequent sex scenes— and yet it’s a fascinating effort and, as the primordial Angry Black Man movie, it almost rates as a must see. Sweetback’s mix of populist and elitist elements creates severe aesthetic tension. The push and pull between the amateur and the auteurial—a cast that can’t act giving their best on poorly lit sets, directed by a talented, obsessed cigar-chomping maniac intent on making the first black art film using minimal resources—results in a movie no other movie could hope to match. Its highbrow ambitions purposefully cater to lowbrow tastes. It’s a movie that claims to speak as the voice of an entire community, directed as a vanity project by a man whose ego is as big as‘s (Jodorowosky only cast himself as Jesus—Van Peebles casts himself as a black messiah who also happens to be massively hung and gets to sleep with all the actresses in the cast). Sweetback is revolutionary in spirit, but reactionary in content. It’s a movie that helped found the blaxploitation subgenre, but it’s a horrible example of the formula. It was a huge popular success at the time, but only because there was nothing like it in theaters; seen today, the film comes up short on multiple fronts. If you want an entertaining movie, check out Mario Van Peebles’ highly recommended biopic Baadassss! instead. But if you want a weird movie, it’s hard to beat the whole sweet Song. Just remember, when asking for it, that there are five s’s in baadasssss. The extra s’s are for extra strangeness.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Totally uncompromising and grindingly repetitive, the film nevertheless accumulates a kind of hallucinatory groove, with unexpected shafts of bizarre humour and vigorous, experimental new wave direction (psychedelic negative images, split screen and so forth).”–Time Out London
“A fever-dream of an odyssey, Sweetback’s voyage from the city to the desert is a portrait of black civil rights as well as the struggle through out the history of black America…. Sweet Sweetback is surrealist cinema at it’s grandest, sitting along side the works of Bunuel, Fellini, and Jodorowsky.”–Gregory Day, Popoptiq
IMDB LINK: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Trailer) – Mildly NSFW original trailer for the film
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) – Overview – Turner Classic Movies’ Sweetback holdings include a detailed background essay with some information not available elsewhere
Melvin Van Peebles – Sweet Weetback’s Baadassss Song – The liner notes to Stax’s 2017 soundtrack re-release, by Jeff Weiss and Melvin Van Peebles
“The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland” – Lerone Bennet’s contemporaneous criticism of Van Peebles’ sexual politics in Ebony magazine
‘Rated X By an All White Jury’ – Stuart Home defends and reappraises Sweetback from a Leftist perspective in this 2006 article for Mute Magazine
He’s Got It Bad, or ‘Baad,’ for His Art – 2010 New York Times profile of Van Peebles, prompted by his short-lived stage adaptation of Sweetback
American Cinematheque Sets Melvin Van Peebles Tribute : The event, beginning today at the Directors Guild, will celebrate the man, the artist and his movies – More information on Van Peebles and Sweetback
California Films: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song – Insightful overview from John Brooks of KQED
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song – The British Board of Film Classification explains why they censored the underage sex scene
Making of Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song – Melvin Van Peebles’ own account of the making of the film
The 50 Most Influential Black Films: A Celebration of African-American Talent, Determination, and Creativity – Naturally, S. Torriano Berry’s survey contains an entry for Sweetback
DVD INFO: The Xenon Pictures 30th anniversary DVD (buy) advertises “digitally remastered audio” (although there is still significant hiss on the soundtrack). Notably, it does not advertise a remastered picture, which will be obvious from the scratchy print. In all fairness, however, the film was shot cheaply on cheap stock, and it feels more authentic in this presentation. Special features are the original trailer and trailers for two lesser known Van Peebles films, plus, most significantly, the 22-minute documentary “The Real Deal: What It
Was... Is,” where Van Peebles (now about 70 and still a fascinating character) tells several (possibly tall) tales about the film, and proves that his libido hasn’t waned by re-enacting Sweetback’s deflowering, enlisting a voluptuous French secretary wearing a paper bag over her head!
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is also available streaming on Fandor (subscribe).
In 2015 Vinegar Syndrome announced that it would be releasing a Blu-ray version of Sweetback (along with one of‘s controversial Coonskin). As of this writing, we’re still waiting. [UPDATE 6/5/2018]: Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack arrived! The print has been restored (reportedly it’s as good as can be expected considering the quality of the original print) and there’s new interviews with Van Peebles and actress Niva Ruschell along with a rerun of the “Real Deal” featurette. The release also includes a stills gallery and a booklet with a new critical essay. Film historian Sergio Mims provides a commentary track. This should now be the go-to release of the film.