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Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: “I’m Gonna Say a Black Ave Maria For You”

<em>Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song:</em> “I’m Gonna Say a Black Ave Maria For You”

Come on now, honey sugar
You know your baby love
You know just the other day
I was gonna take you to go see a movie
Sweet Sweetback . . .

Stevie Wonder, “Sweet Little Girl,” 1972

We went to some seedy hotel with folks
sitting in the back doing God knows what.
I went to sleep, I was so disgusted . . .
I don’t remember the revolution stuff,
but I remember the porn . . .
I couldn’t believe I was seeing this mess
on a work night.

Daisy Williams, my mom, 2021

My mother was not having it. Still not having it. Her memories of being dragged to see Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) by my father (of course) remain quite visceral, and I adore her attempt to sleep it away. For many, the film is still difficult to process, and that may very well have everything to do with its seemingly irreconcilable assertion of both revolution and pornography. Arguably, the film—and all Black films, for that matter—may be best appreciated with a deliberate suspension of authenticity fantasies or demands for definitive answers about Black life. Black film criticism needs more productive ambivalence than truth claims or approaches strictly governed by Sociology 101. Messy and riveting, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’s style and politics continue to compellingly challenge assumptions about the idea of Black film and American film history.

The film follows Sweetback, a sex-worker rebel on the run from the LAPD, furiously tracking his incessant mobility and attempts to escape. Van Peebles’s use of solarization, multiple exposures, superimpositions, asynchronous editing, self-reflexive direct address, freeze-frames, and modal shifts from fiction to ethnography demonstrates the work of an artist versed in European art cinema, the underground cinema of the avant-garde, and Black cultural politics. Indeed, the film should be thought of as a culmination of Van Peebles’s artistic life up to that point, as an independent and studio filmmaker, an expatriate writer of French novels and comics, a composer, and a playwright. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was an accumulation of his continued devising of his craft and politics across various mediums and institutional/structural contexts toward the conception of a Black populist cinema. This would be a cinema for the people that would not deign to reproduce the more accommodationist stance of the social-problem films of the sixties. Van Peebles began working on the film after walking away from the three-picture deal he had with Columbia Pictures, having completed only one film, Watermelon Man (1970). His experience with and eventual refusal of the Hollywood studio system vitally generated his own sense of a Black filmmaking practice.

Sweet Sweetback declares at the start to whom it is indebted and for what purpose it is intended. This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man. An emboldened invitation and refusal, this statement calls out the Man as a term concurrently naming white supremacy and anti-Blackness as an individual, a system, and a history. (Perhaps we might consider amending this, with contemporary audiences in mind, as the Man and Karen? What did happen to Becky?) Importantly, the film offers itself to those who have had enough and not those who may feel as though they can still persevere and endure. Released in the wake of the long sixties, Sweet Sweetback demonstrates the conjecture of consciousness-raising that was of particular import to the Black Arts Movement, a movement of artists nationwide who were devoted to the ideals of Black Power. As Larry Neal crucially formulated in 1968, artists committed to the destiny of Black people must create work attuned to the Black Aesthetic, “an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America.”

The film’s hailing of a Black audience signals an allegiance to this idea of the Black Aesthetic, but it also demonstrates a collateral nod to Third Cinema, an idea first proposed by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in 1969. If First Cinema was Hollywood and Second Cinema the work of bourgeois art cinema, then the concept of Third Cinema was a call for work devoted to the anticapitalist and anti-imperialist struggle: “The anti-imperialist struggle of the peoples of the Third World and of their equivalents inside the imperialist countries constitutes today the axis of the world revolution. Third Cinema is, in our opinion, the cinema that recognizes in that struggle the most gigantic cultural, scientific, and artistic manifestation of our time, the great possibility of constructing a liberated personality with each people as the starting point—in a word, the decolonization of culture.” The idea of film’s capacity to provoke a liberation of self from the internalized mechanisms of oppression informed Van Peebles’s approach to Sweet Sweetback as decolonial dissent: “The white man has colonized our minds. We’ve been violated, confused, and drained by this colonization, and from this brutal, calculated genocide the most effective and vicious racism has grown, and it is with this starting point in mind and the intention to reverse the process that I went into cinema in the first fucking place.” Free your mind and your ass will follow? In the wake of his experience at Columbia Pictures, oversight by the (white) studio establishment, restrictions on scripts, and lack of control over the racial makeup of his crew were things Van Peebles neither cared for nor wanted to encounter again. They bled your mama / They bled your papa / But they won’t bleed me!

“Sweetback moves with the perpetual motion of fugitive cartography, mapping Los Angeles with a renegade fury.”

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