With Baadasssss!, co-writer and director Mario Van Peebles has has offered a tribute to his father, Melvin Van Peebles. The film is also a case of cinematic one-upsmanship in which Mario himself stars as his father Melvin, warts and all, during the course of the older man’s production of his greatest claim to fame, the 1971 cult sensation Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
For those who weren’t there, or who have managed to miss Sweetback in the video store or in college film courses, the elder Van Peebles’ film was an explosive, low-budget tale of a Black Panther on the run from the Man. Starring Melvin himself, it was grainy and hallucinogenic in the fashion of that era and it featured a throbbing, Greek chorus-style accompaniment from Earth, Wind and Fire.
Sweetback is widely credited with being the first film in which a black man seized a camera and took control over his representation (although film historians would cite the work of Oscar Micheaux several decades earlier). I haven’t seen it since college, and I remember it having more attitude than craft: lots of groovy clothes, hippie chicks and a great scene in the desert, capped by a title reading, “Watch out! A bad ass nigger’s gonna collect some dues!”
Melvin Van Peebles, who comes off as a cool cat in the jazz hipster idiom, was in his 40s when he made Sweetback, and filmmaking was only one part of his eclectic career: He has also been an Air Force pilot, a musician, a playwright and novelist, and a commodities trader. His son Mario, on the other hand, has pursued a steady living as a B-list movie actor (recently playing Malcolm X in Michael Mann’s Ali) and film director (New Jack City, Posse).
With Baadasssss!, Mario approaches his patrimony with a very strong film and a healthy dose of ambivalence toward his charismatic but erratically attentive father. The most immediately enjoyable thing about Baadasssss! is its cheerful evocation of the easy-come, easy-go filmmaking demimonde of Southern California around 1970. The sexual revolution was in full swing, of course–as were drugs–and the culture was beginning a flirtation with mainstream pornography. And so it goes that once Melvin decides to make a movie that would finally tell the truth about being black in America, he ends up trolling for production funds at druggy beach parties, hunting for some dissipated millionaire who will back his potentially consciousness-expanding film.
In accordance with his milieu, Van Peebles enlists the help of a white stoner (Rainn Wilson), a black porn producer (David Alan Grier), a reclusive gangbanger (Terry Crews) and other social undesirables. Along the way, there’s some very funny casting: A straight-shooting, Bob Evans-style producer turns out to be a bit of a gay shooter, too. And he’s played by Adam West. Yes, that Adam West.
Melvin expects his film to help bring African Americans into the filmmaking profession, so he insists that his crew be at least 50 per cent “third world.” A problem arises, though, when one newbie black crew member objects to taking orders from a white man, to which Melvin replies, “After 400 years of oppression, you can survive another month or so.” The production of Sweetback is dogged by other difficulties, as well. The principal financial backer gets hauled off to jail. His leading lady backs out after her boyfriend objects to the (considerable) T&A content of Sweetback. And, due to Van Peebles’ negligence, SAG actors have to leave the production. “When you’ve spent your whole life being told ‘no,’” a girlfriend explains, “you stop listening.”
Baadasssss! is an admiring tribute from a son to a father who did a phenomenal amount of hustling to get his film made. To trick some union stewards, Melvin passes the film off as black porn and shoots a scene that will further that impression. When his crew gets busted on a Friday, he gets the $50,000 bail money from Bill Cosby but proceeds to pocket the funds and make his crew wait for the judge to release them on Monday. In an interview segment, the real Maurice White (of Earth, Wind and Fire) remembers getting a check from Melvin for $500. “That check bounced all over the world,” he says, shaking his head.
What emerges most powerfully, though, is son Mario’s ambivalent admiration. Sure, the old man was cool, with his ever-present and rarely lit cigar in his mouth, his natty headgear and a long stream of elegant verbosity. Still, some of the hustling is occasionally dishonest, and worse, the elder Van Peebles rules his children through terror, intimidation and neglect. There’s a certain bitterness in the way the younger Van Peebles dramatizes a sequence in which Melvin decides that his son should cut off his meticulously coiffed Afro and act in a sex scene with a prostitute (the young Mario did indeed appear in such a scene in Sweetback.) Mario further complicates his tale of fathers and sons by including scenes of Melvin with his own father (Ossie Davis), a traditional man who preached hard work and self reliance, but who, of course, did not anticipate just how his son would apply that philosophy.
Baadasssss! also reminds us that the political fervor that animated the films of Melvin and his contemporaries has largely disappeared from the American scene, although there are notable exceptions such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Do the Right Thing. In an era when too many black filmmakers are producing borderline minstrel entertainment like White Chicks and Soul Plane, Baadasssss! is a welcome call to arms. It’s also a more coherent film than Sweetback, however much we continue to honor the original and its creator.