By Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D.,
NNPA Culture and Entertainment Editor
The film world is reeling over the loss of influential filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles who passed away yesterday in Manhattan. Van Peebles is best known for his classic independent films Watermelon Man (1970) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), which offered a bold critique of racism, power and Black liberation in the United States. Van Peebles, the father of actor/director Mario Van Peebles, created the blueprint for what would become the Blaxploitation genre of filmmaking with his Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadasssss Song.
Born in Chicago in 1932, Van Peebles was the son of a tailor and homemaker. After graduating high school, he enrolled in West Virginia State University before transferring to Ohio Wesleyan University. Following graduation, the future filmmaker joined the Air Force and began writing. In 1956, he married German actress and photographer Maria Marx, who appeared with him in this iconic film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. They lived in Europe and Mexico before he returned to the states and worked as a cable car operator in San Francisco.
In the early 1960s Van Peebles published four novels and one-story collection in French and made a short film, Cinq cent balles (1965), about a child trying to retrieve a banc note in a tenuous world. In 1968, Van Peebles made his first feature-length film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (La Permission). The renaissance man starred with actress Nicole Berger in the film which explored themes around interracial romance, nation and identity. Three-Day Pass was well-received by audiences and critics and put him on the map in Hollywood, many of whom thought they had discovered a French auteur instead of a talented Black man from Chicago.
In 1970, Van Peebles made his first Hollywood film entitled Watermelon Man starring Godfrey Cambridge. Released by Columbia Pictures, the film told the story of a racist White man who one day wakes up Black and the fallout from his family, friends and place of employment because of it. In interviews, Melvin Van Peebles said it was the experience of making Watermelon Man within the Hollywood film system that convinced him to work as an independent filmmaker so he could have complete control over his films.
The independent artist struck out on his own with the goal of making Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a film that explored themes of Black power and liberation. The auteur raised $500,000 from investments by supporters including Bill Cosby and earnings from his previous work. The film featured a soundtrack by Earth, Wind and Fire, a then up and coming jazz and R&B band and offered a gritty, unapologetic look into Black America’s underground economy. The film highlighted the story of a wrongfully accused Black man’s journey from sideshow to revolutionary. Sweetback put forth a bold Black aesthetic embracing Black fashion of the time, elements of the Black Power movement and articulating the idea of American freedom through a distinctly Black revolutionary socio-political lens.
Much like Black film pioneer Oscar Micheaux, Van Peebles’ films were celebrated and condemned for exploring controversial topics and for what some critics called technical issues. Using a distribution technique like Micheaux, Van Peebles rented out theaters in Black cities and showed his films to sold out audiences keeping all of the profits. This distribution technique practiced by Micheaux and Van Peebles is now referred to as four walling, a term coined in 1965. Through this distribution model, Van Peebles earned $10 million at the box office and Hollywood noticed. Film companies like United Artists which was on the brink of economic collapse at the time, appropriated the narrative and stylistic elements of his films, giving birth to what would become the Blaxploitation era of filmmaking. Blaxploitation films were cheaply made, featured Black casts, R&B/Soul soundtracks, highlighted Black fashion and culture of the time and explored themes of resistance. The genre turned fashion models Richard Roundtree and Tamara Dobson and aspiring actress Pam Grier into bonafide movie stars.
Known as the Godfather of Black Cinema, Van Peebles was a man of many talents, all of which were on display with the film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which he produced, directed, starred in and distributed the film. While Van Peebles continued writing and directing film, he appeared as an actor in 44 films and television shows including Boomerang, Living Single, Panther, Girlfriends and Peeples. He also continued writing and performing songs, releasing six solo albums over the years.
In 2014, Van Peebles released The Last Transmission, a spoken word and jazz collaboration with the Heliocentrics. He collaborated with other music artists, appearing in the visual album for Standing on the Corner’s single, “Angel” in 2020.
The Criterion Collection, which will release a retrospective box set of Van Peebles’ work next week, announced his death in a statement. They wrote on Twitter:
“We are saddened to announce the passing of a giant of American cinema, Melvin Van Peebles, who died last night, at home with family, at the age of 89. In an unparalleled career, Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape. He will be deeply missed.”
Mario Van Peebles released a statement about his father’s passing through Criterion:
“Dad knew that Black images matter,” Mario Van Peebles offered. “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.”
Melvin Van Peebles is survived by three children Mario Van Peebles, Megan Van Peebles and Max Van Peebles and a host of grandchildren. He was 89.