The MVP of Black Cinema
Melvin Van Peebles is still free.
One of the last free black men on earth, in fact—an elite category of accomplished, streetwise aristocats whose ranks include Cecil Taylor and David Hammons, until quite recently Gordon Parks, and not too many more. Distinguished gentlemen of color, unafraid of dirt beneath the fingernails, who've made the world watch them do it their way for longer than some of us have been alive. Men who've even, on occasion, made the watchers pay handsomely for the privilege. Now 73, Van Peebles is still doing his thing, signifying, storytelling and combatting white supremacy on the sly.
At the end of 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, we're told this badass nigger will be back to collect some debts. Turns out the badass in question wasn't the film's brother with no name but its writer-director-star-composer-producer, who defied odds and saw Sweetback become the most profitable indie film of its day. He seems as busy and as in our faces as ever, thanks to 2004's revival of his 1971 hit musical Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, and to Joe Angio's doc How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), a riveting and uproarious documentary on Van Peebles' life. There's also Bellyful, the French-language feature he made a couple of years ago about a pregnant young African woman's travails in Paris. Most excitingly for Brer Soul's music fans is the promise of a double-album collaboration with indie hip-hop production wizard Madlib. He's also shooting and starring in a new semi-biographical feature, Memories of an Ex-Doofus Mother.
We can't call this a comeback. Van Peebles, like hip-hop, doesn't know the meaning of stop. He's never stopped working multiple hustles on multiple fronts. Some boomers will recall that after Sweetback he had two Tony-nominated Broadway musicals, that he took screenwriting credit for Richard Pryor's Greased Lightning, that in the '90s he reinvented himself as the first black floor trader in history at the American Stock Exchange, and that he adapted the script for his son Mario's Panther from his own novel. Though Van Peebles has only made four features since Sweetback, he ain't been collecting dust like some godfather-of-blaxploitation bust on the mantel. In 2003 he appeared as himself in a futuristic Isaac Julien video installation, where he has an anticlimactic encounter with a sexy temponaut and his own wax effigy—but no one has yet invented a future he can't keep up with or hasn't already seen.
Van Peebles' hustling credentials go back to age 9, when his father gave him a toy wagon and some old clothes to sell instead of an allowance. He has always been an autodidact. In Paris, he decided to become a French novelist in order to qualify for the filmmaking grant responsible for his feature The Story of a Three-Day Pass. That film led to Van Peebles being approached by Hollywood. "I kept turning them down because I wasn't going to be their one little genius nigger that they used to beat on the heads of everybody else," he says. "And what happened was that two guys who'd been out there for years butting their heads against a wall got work—Ossie Davis got Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Gordon Parks got to do The Learning Tree. I later agreed to do Watermelon Man under the condition that I got to shoot it out in Hollywood, where they were shooting everything else, and not on location. This also got me into the directors union, which had never taken a brother before then."
After Watermelon Man, 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. The fuck-da-police politics of its rebellious hero are matched by every aspect of the means of production Van Peebles seized by balls, fist or gunpoint.
What the film also identified was the ravenous appetite that the hood had to see its own manners and mores satirized and surrealized on the big screen. Sweetback is a runaway-slave narrative whose adherences to the conventions of screen pleasure are few and far between; its sex scenes may be the most anti-erotic ever shot, though the one with the biker chick bears the distinctive honor of depicting maybe the first occasion, real or imagined, in which a black man screws his way out of a redneck lynching. Far more delirious passion gets portrayed in its various cop-killing sequences.
Today, though a lot more black people have moved on up, the cinema produced by black America still seems as underdeveloped and dependent on Hollywood welfare as in the '70s, and just as stocked with Hollywood clichs. What Van Peebles realized in the making of Sweetback was how much our liberation from Hollywood would depend on freebooting creative and economic models derived from an oppositional relationship to Hollywood. Van Peebles knows he's paid a price for defying the unions and for owning the rights to his product, but there's nothing beat-down or bitter about him. Surveying his spacious but humble working-artist digs in New York, he says, "As you can see, I have no need to live ostentatiously."
He continues to be the indomitable, upbeat, energetic workaholic he's always been. While the world makes plans to put him under glass or carve him in stone, he's as enthusiastic about what's next as your average whippersnapper hustling for a whiff of that first big paycheck. This is especially the case with the new film, a project for which he's yet again done the unthinkable and recorded his audio track first—sound, narration, music, dialogue, the whole megillah—without an investor in sight. (A word to the wise for all you luxurious hip-hop moguls out there: Van Peebles is on record as saying he will not decline your investment in Memories of an Ex-Doofus Mother.) "Fortunately I'm in excellent condition, because despite all the accolades it's still just me plodding along," he says. "So the new film will get done when it gets done. Every time I do something, it's ahead of the curve, so people still ask, 'How you gonna do that?' because, just like Sweetback, they've never seen anybody do it before."
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