Related Articles: Movies, All


Soul-filled tribute to a baadasssss cinema icon in the making

With the summer movie season underway, there is no dearth of flix vying for your attention- from good to bad to popcorn. None, however, is likely to make you leave the theater more inspired and upbeat than Baadasssss!, Mario Van Peebles's story of how his father, pioneer black filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, made Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and ushered in the era of blaxploitation cinema.

The year is 1971, and 38-year-old Melvin Van Peebles (played by Mario), basking in the success of his critically-acclaimed 1970 satirical comedy Watermelon Man (which tells the story of a white bigot who one day wakes up black) has the chance of closing a lucrative three-picture deal with Columbia. His agent (played by Saul Rubinek at his smarmy best) pressures him to make another comedy along the lines of Watermelon Man, but Melvin has a better idea.

Looking back on the history of blacks in American cinema, who were either given stereotypical supporting roles (such as servants) or were depicted as exemplary role models struggling to fit in with the dominant culture (such as the characters played by Sidney Poitier), Melvin takes an imaginary stroll through the neighborhood in which he grew up and emerges from the experience with the decision to make a film that shows "all the faces that Norman Rockwell never painted." He secludes himself in the bedroom of his small Hollywood apartment and in a feverish two-day script-writing session flushes out the story of a sex-performer-turned-ghetto-hero called Sweetback, who stands up to "the Man" by killing two cops who brutalized a young prisoner for racist reasons and lives to tell about it.

Fully aware that he wouldn't be able to make the film within the Hollywood system, he turns his back on the Columbia deal and enters the world of guerilla filmmaking, pouring his heart, soul, and money into producing, directing, casting, marketing, and starring in "the first movie by and for the black community." He puts together a ragtag multi-ethnic crew with little or no film experience but a penchant for everything revolutionary or counter culture and commissions a then little-known band called Earth, Wind, and Fire to provide the pulsating soundtrack to the film. Under the guise of shooting a porn movie (to get the "lily-white" unions, who were not interested in smut, off their backs), Melvin and his crew embark on an adventure that will make movie history and change their lives forever.

Based on the making-of book that Melvin published after finishing the ground-breaking film that ended his Hollywood career, Baadasssss!I is Mario's honest and revealing portrait of his pioneering father as well as a tribute to his father's uncompromising vision and talent. Nothing could stop Melvin from finishing the movie he wanted to make- not the police who arrested his crew under trumped-up charges that they had stolen equipment; not the creditors who were threatening him with his life when he couldn't pay back what he owed; not his deteriorating health when he collapsed from sheer exhaustion and temporarily lost sight in one eye.

However, Mario not only focuses on his father's travails of securing funding for and making his break-out hit; he also sharply observes the personal relationships that were tested along the way, including the relationship between Mario and his father, who cast his then 13-year-old son as the young Sweetback "losing his cherry" in the film's infamous raunchy opening scene- never once considering his son's feelings and objections.

Moreover, Mario places Sweetback and his father's decision to make the film in the social and political context of the late 1960s and 1970s. More than a decade of civil rights struggles had shaken the foundation of American society; Muhammad Ali had emerged as the world's first in-your-face "black power" athlete when he refused to fight in a war abroad as long as the black community had to fight a war at home; and with the recent rise of the Black Panther Party, the black power movement had arrived in full force- "the times were changing: the Panthers knew it, the students knew it, but Hollywood ignored it," Melvin muses in the beginning of the film.

Beyond the politics, however, Baadasssss! is not without its fair share of humor that frequently lightens up Melvin's single-minded dark film odyssey and makes it the crowd pleaser it is, and viewers will fondly remember the appearances of Melvin's assistant, Priscilla (Joy Bryant), an aspiring actress who turns every entrance into an audition for her boss.

Shot in record time on a shoestring budget under adverse conditions and in a style that deliberately violated Hollywood aesthetics and rules of editing, Sweetback was in tune with the social and political changes of its time. It quickly found its audience among the cinematically and politically disenfranchised who made it the number one top-grossing movie of 1971, and Hollywood took notice. Scrambling to cash in on Sweetback's success, MGM rewrote a white cop drama script, imitating Sweetback's formula but diluting its revolutionary style and message, and called it Shaft, officially sounding in the golden age of blaxploitation cinema, which featured slamming soul grooves, raw nudity, and cool, take-no-shit heroes and heroines in outrageous clothes and hairdos (remember Pam Grier, who, in Foxy Brown kept her Derringer in her 'fro?).

Brimming with soul, sex, style, and wit that blend the characters' real lives with their movie personas and scenes from Sweetback; exquisitely photographed, cast, and acted; and finding humor even in the most hopeless situations, Baadasssss! vividly captures a defining moment in African-American cinema as it retells one of the greatest stories about independent filmmaking ever told. If you're looking for a thoroughly entertaining and inspiring summer movie in which real-life characters- instead of special effects- light up the screen, you won't be disappointed by Baadasssss!