Melvin Van Peebles, Uncompromising Artist

Melvin Van Peebles

The celebration of the life and work of filmmaker, novelist, playwright, actor, musician, painter, and all-around uncompromising artist Melvin Van Peebles, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of eighty-nine, has only just begun. On Sunday and Monday, the New York Film Festival will present a new 4K restoration of the 1971 milestone of Black and American independent cinema, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Tuesday sees the release of our box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films. And next year, Van Peebles’s 1971 musical Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, which includes material from three of his albums, will return to Broadway.

“Certainly in the figure of Van Peebles,” wrote Brandon Harris in a superb 2008 profile for Filmmaker, “we are faced with someone whose work has at times been both seminal and forgotten, whose oeuvre is ripe with contradictory and fascinating details, whose contribution to American filmic discourse is both significant and elusive.” Like everyone else who met Van Peebles in his “intimate, eclectically appointed apartment,” Harris couldn’t help but take notes on such items as “the back end of a VW bus jutting out of one parlor wall and a giant sculpture of a hot dog near the window.” When Van Peebles spent $100,000 renovating the place in 1988, Suzanne Slesin took a tour for the New York Times: “The jukebox-shaped archway links the entrance foyer to the tiny book-lined study, where ‘English manor meets Art Deco,’ said Mr. Van Peebles. The narrow corridor with its floor-to-ceiling wood shutters is Mr. Van Peebles’s version of ‘a car on the Orient Express as it’s pulling into Budapest.’”

Van Peebles grew up on the south side of Chicago, and his “hustling credentials go back to age nine, when his father gave him a toy wagon and some old clothes to sell instead of giving him an allowance,” wrote Greg Tate in the Village Voice in 2006. “He has always been an autodidact.” Thirteen days after graduating with a B.A. in literature, he joined the Air Force. He became a navigator on a B-47 bomber and met and married German photographer and actor Maria Marx. They first settled in Mexico City, where Van Peebles painted portraits. When they moved to San Francisco—Van Peebles’s experiences as a cable car gripman informed his first book, The Big Heart—he started making his first short films.

Hollywood showed no interest, so Van Peebles decided to pick up and move to the Netherlands to study astronomy. He stopped first in New York, where he met Amos Vogel, who screened the nine-minute Three Pickup Men for Herrick (1957) at Cinema 16. Ralph Ellison moderated the Q&A. While Van Peebles took his family to the Netherlands, Vogel went to Paris and showed the shorts to Henri Langlois at the Cinémathèque française. In 2012, Van Peebles told Miriam Bale in the L Magazine that Langlois “sent me this postcard saying, ‘Why are you in Holland? You should be making films!’”

After Maria returned to the States with their three children, Mario, Megan, and Max, Van Peebles hitchhiked to France. By some sort of remarkable and speedy osmosis, he picked up the language and was soon reporting for Le Nouvel Observateur, writing for a humor magazine, and then editing a short-lived French edition of Mad, all the while writing novels and short stories in French and English. When he discovered that the French government would finance films based on French works, he won a subsidy to turn one of his novels, La Permission, into his first feature.

In The Story of a Three Day Pass (1968), Harry Baird plays Turner, a Black American G.I. who falls for a French woman while on leave in Paris. When a new 4K restoration screened in theaters across the country this summer, Nicolas Rapold wrote in the New York Times that Van Peebles “threads Turner’s hopes and joys with seemingly inescapable aggressions against him as a Black man and societal anxieties surrounding race. The story’s romantic idyll is shot through with a prickly visual style and a biting candor.” Aside from a breathtaking double dolly shot that guides Turner into a Parisian bar, several reviewers spotted the influence of the French New Wave in the use of jump cuts and freeze frames. But Van Peebles told Miriam Bale: “I don’t know what a New Wave style is. That’s some shit.”

In July, Mario Van Peebles told Ryan Gilbey in the Guardian that when his father saw the restoration, “he really dug it—he thought it looked great.” When Gilbey noted that “the anxious Turner looked out of step with images of Blackness in cinema,” Mario said, “Sidney Poitier was so talented, educated, and bright, but while he was making Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, my father was in France shooting this interracial love story where the characters are regular, flawed, and fucked-up. Turner is a total nerd! It’s almost a coming-of-age film. My father wasn’t interested in making us ‘other.’ He was making us ‘you.’”

Three Day Pass picked up an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and that’s when Hollywood came calling. Columbia hired Van Peebles to direct Watermelon Man (1970), a comedy about a white racist insurance salesman who wakes up one morning to discover that he has become a Black man. “In the hands of another director,” wrote Racquel Gates in Film Quarterly in 2014, “Watermelon Man might have been a liberal racist tale of a white man who ‘discovers’ the reality of racial oppression via a ‘nightmarish’ experience. Melvin Van Peebles transformed the film into a multilayered critique of white racism and white privilege.”

The movie made money, so Columbia offered Van Peebles a three-picture contract—and then balked when he laid out his plans for his third feature. As Greg Tate put it, Van Peebles “shocked his handlers by deciding to go independent, risking all his salary from the studio project to make Sweetback, which remains the most gigantic fuck-you ever mounted against the Hollywood business, on every level that matters—from financing, scoring, shooting, and union dues to its exhibition and distribution.”

Following an opening title that announces that the film is “dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man,” Sweetback immediately presents its first provocation. An adolescent orphan living and working as a towel boy in a Los Angeles brothel—he’s played by young Mario Van Peebles—is seduced by a prostitute. Sweetback grows up to be a performer in the brothel’s sex show played, of course, by the film’s writer, director, producer, editor, and composer, Melvin Van Peebles.

A series of violent clashes with racist cops turns Sweetback into a fugitive, and it’s here, notes Clayton Dillard at Slant, that Van Peebles takes a “psychedelic approach to montage that’s evident throughout sequences of Sweetback running that suddenly become hallucinatory, monochromatic canvases of neon colors. The effects are no mere flourishes, but expressions of Sweetback’s psychological distance from the desert spaces that appear simultaneously wide open and enclosed. By making Sweetback an orphan turned wandering outlaw, Van Peebles conveys his perception of the Black experience in America: perpetually abused, displaced, and on the run.”

Throughout the film, Sweetback barely utters half a dozen lines. “It is a wonderful Rorschach test of what people thought they saw,” Van Peebles told Ben Sisario in the New York Times in 2010. “Normally, classic American, we shut up, and we know what the hero is going to do. Who knew that Sweetback was going to go berserk? He didn’t even know it.”

Sweetback opened at one theater in Detroit, and a few days later, it was added to another in Atlanta. Van Peebles promoted his movie on Black radio stations and released his score, performed by the then-little-known Earth, Wind & Fire, on Stax Records. Shows sold out, the release expanded, and Sweetback eventually made more money than any other independently produced film ever had up to that point.

Van Peebles publicly refused to submit Sweetback to the Motion Picture Association of America, which meant that the film was automatically slapped with an X. Van Peebles made t-shirts: “Rated X by an all-white jury.” MPAA president Jack Valenti “went ballistic,” recalled Van Peebles in a conversation with Nathan Rabin at the A.V. Club in 2004. “He said, ‘You can’t do that!’ And I said, ‘You’re all white, aren’t you?’ ‘Yeah, of course.’ But that doesn’t have anything to do with it, right?”

In 2003, Mario Van Peebles—who had established his own reputation as a director with New Jack City (1991) and his 1995 adaptation of his father’s novel, Panther—wrote, produced, directed, and starred as Melvin in Baadasssss!, a warts-and-all depiction of the making of Sweetback. “The father and son became a dynamic duo, especially as Mario shifted toward edifying his father’s legacy,” writes Robert Daniels at Daniels has been previewing the extras on the forthcoming box set. “When I first learned of Van Peebles’s passing,” he writes, “I was watching Mario explaining the support his father provided to both him and the many other Black creatives who broke into the industry.”

On Wednesday, Mario posted a video on Instagram, noting that when he, his brother Max, and his sister Marguerite flew to New York and took their father out of the hospital and brought him to his home, “he had such a look of relief and joy on his face.” Mario adds that “as the so-called ‘godfather of modern Black cinema,’ he’s not just my dad, he’s your dad, too. If you want to do him any service, get out there and keep making a difference.”

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