Mario, son of Melvin Van Peebles, addresses the legacy of “Sweet Sweetback”


Four days after the death of Melvin Van Peebles, his son joined NYFF to greet his father’s iconic “Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song”.

Legendary movie maverick Melvin Van Peebles passed away at the age of 89 on Wednesday. Four days later, his son Mario was on stage to present his father’s most iconic achievement, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” screened in a new 4K restoration by the Criterion Collection at the New York Film Festival. The open-air event, which took place in the new NYFF venue in Damrosch Park, served as a timely reminder of the film’s massive cultural impact as well as its value in proving that films with black protagonists have a commercial appeal.

“This movie was made at a time when you didn’t really see black people onscreen with facial hair,” Mario told the crowd, “not to mention the crazy shit my dad does in that movie. . “

In addition to pursuing his own acting and film career, young Van Peebles has been the keeper of his father’s legacy for decades, even playing Melvin in the 2000 biopic “Badasssss!” But that investment in the legacy of the project came later. At 13 on the set of the 1971 production (where he made appearances in the sexually explicit opening scene), Mario said that the representative value of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” was not part of his experience. “I didn’t get the big picture until later,” he said, noting that he later found out that his father had received death threats as a result of the production. “It was before MAGA,” Mario said.

Over time, he became more aware of how the film fits in with other iconoclastic American films made around the same time. “White people saw the peace and freedom movement reflected a bit in films like ‘Easy Rider’, but we didn’t have that,” Mario said. “So he does ‘Sweetback’ and puts the black power on the screen for the first time. At first the audience didn’t know what it was.

While the film is closely associated with the madness of the blaxploitation genre (“Shaft” was released the same year), it’s a much more radical bet, an immersive assemblage of black struggle and empowerment on a vibrant Earth Wind score. and Fire which bears more in common with the avant-garde works of the time than with anything more narratively coherent.

Elder Van Peebles stars as titular Sweetback, a brothel-raised sex worker who goes on the run after beating up a pair of racist cops. The ensuing saga finds Sweetback constantly escaping capture as he sprints through a grimy American landscape riddled with racism and the alienating forces of an industrial society in which marginalized people have been forced to descend to the bottom of the socio-economic equation. “You’ve seen a lot of movies with us as a servant class,” Mario said of the time “Sweetback” was made. “The world is changing and the way we are reflected on the screen has been colored, or as I call it, the ‘mo’ tea suh? ‘ tribe. … It was a film about a sex worker moving from an ‘us’ mentality to a ‘me’ mentality.

“Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song”

At first, “Sweetback” only came out in two theaters, in Detroit and Atlanta. But the film’s popularity in these theaters led it to find a wider life, where it ultimately grossed $ 15 million and was adopted by the Black Panthers. From there, he inspired a range of black-centric budget films over the next decade, from “Shaft” to “Superfly” and beyond. Addressing the kind of blaxploitation that ensues, Mario said, “Real Hollywood isn’t black or white, it’s also green.”

Despite his experimental form, Van Peebles was quite capable of making more conventional films, having made two earlier feature films: “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” which he adapted from his own novel. in French, and “Watermelon Man”, a Columbia Pictures Production. Although Van Peebles has a three-movie deal with Columbia, the studio shot down its initial “Sweetback” pitch. “They said to him, ‘You can’t even print this in the newspaper,’” said Mario.

Melvin funded the film out of his own pocket (with a loan of $ 50,000 from Bill Cosby) and decided to record the film as a porn project so he could have his own choice regarding the crew. . “On ‘Watermelon Man,’ the film crew was mostly white men,” Mario said. “He was very firm that he wanted a film crew that looked like America.”

Mario said he often looked to his father for advice. “When I was about to have kids, I asked my dad a bunch of questions. I had a list of crap, all the things I wanted to ask him about,” he said. he said. “I asked him if he would do this movie the same way. He said, ‘Yeah, son, I must have had the WOM factor.’ WOM was “word of mouth.” The movie had to be outrageous enough that he could release it without a budget. Whether you love this movie or hate it, you are talking about it.

Mario fondly remembers the time his father contacted a movie critic after complaining in his review that the dialogue in “Sweetback” was incomprehensible. “My father called him and said, ‘I invite you to see him in the black community,’” said Mario, adding that the writer had attended a screening in Harlem. “Suddenly he was there with people who understood every word. … There was a real blind spot for people who were members of the mainstream culture.

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About Monty S. Maynard

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