Melvin Van Peebles, the groundbreaking filmmaker behind “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song,” and father of director and actor Mario Van Peebles, has died. He was 89.
“Sweet Sweetback” was a groundbreaking film a few times over. Van Peebles financed and released the film independently, paving the way for an entire ecosystem of indie cinema. Because he couldn’t afford a traditional marketing campaign, he used the film’s soundtrack album to build awareness for the movie. And most crucially, he proved that films by Black filmmakers about Black life in America could be a profitable endeavor, presaging the explosion in Blaxploitation cinema of the 1970s.
“Dad knew that Black images matter,” Mario Van Peebles said in a statement from the Criterion Collection. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”
“Sweet Sweetback” will be screened at the New York Film Festival this week for a 50th anniversary tribute. “In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and music,” the Criterion Collection said.
Among those who paid tribute to him were director Barry Jenkins, who wrote, “He made the most of every second, of EVERY single damn frame and admittedly, while the last time I spent any time with him was MANY years ago, it was a night in which he absolutely danced his face off. The man just absolutely LIVED.”
Warrington Hudlin, founder of the Black Filmmaker Foundation, said,” As the Godfather of Black Cinema, he left us with both the inspiration and challenge to continue his artistic and racial disruption of the society we were born into. And he likely continues that provocation in the next life.”
Melvin and Mario Van Peebles teamed on the 1989 film “Identity Crisis,” with Melvin directing and Mario scripting and starring as a rapper possessed by the soul of a dead fashion designer. Melvin appeared in the 1993 Mario Van Peebles-directed “Posse,” in which Mario also starred, as well as in Mario’s Black Panther drama “Panther” (1995), with Melvin adapting the script from his own novel, the Mario Van Peebles-directed “Love Kills (1998) and the Mario-directed “Redemption Road” (2010).
(Excerpt) Read more in: Variety