Photos and Video
The release of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song in 1971 was more than just a watershed moment in the history of independent cinema. It also marked the culmination of a Herculean effort by filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles to buck the honky unions, stay one step ahead of his creditors, and get his vision enacted on screen without interference from the suits -- all while hassling the Man at every conceivable opportunity. In fact, the story behind the making of Sweetback may be more engrossing, from a narrative point of view, than Sweetback itself! Now, 30 years after his father turned the film world on its ear, Mario Van Peebles takes on the challenge of telling that story, and succeeds brilliantly. Playing his own father, Van Peebles fils crafts an honest and revealing portrait of Melvin at the height of his cinematic power and influence. Rollicking, hilarious, and unsparing in its depiction of the guerrilla filmmaking process of the early 1970s, Baadasssss! depicts Melvin as he struggles to raise money to finance his magnum opus under the guise of creating a black porno film, bails out his crew after a cracker cop decides "a bunch of Negroes and hippies" can't have come by their camera equipment honestly, and perseveres through a series of death threats to shepherd his vision to the screen. This is more than just an homage; its an authentic, outrageous piece of filmmaking -- the kind that should make papa proud.
Director's Statement Collapse
"How's your Daddy, he still getting some?" inquired Muhammad Ali leaning in with a conspiratorial wink, his broad rugged face grinning as he scanned the set. "Do some Malcolm for me." I'd give him a taste, one of the minister's later speeches. "Brother sure could talk couldn't he?" Ali said, suddenly reflective. I had first met the Champ at the premiere of my directorial debut, New Jack City, but never spent time with him until filming Ali for Columbia Pictures. I had already directed what became a controversial film on the Black Panthers and had been struggling to assemble funding on a piece about Dr. King for months and now here I was on the well-heeled Ali set portraying the political icon Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz). Recently it seemed I had been revisiting roughly the same period in history--each time from a different political vantage point. I had grown up in a run n' gun "do for self" indie film family; on Ali, I was like a poor kid in a candy store. With a budget, I mean a real big-ass studio film, Michael Mann research budget. I visited prisons to meet with inmates who had converted to Islam while incarcerated and a car and driver took me there. Any books I requested usually appeared the next day. I met with Warith Deen Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad's son, who had taken over the nation of Islam; Mike Wallace; Minister Farrakhan; and Ms. Shabazz, Malcolm's eldest daughter, who was instrumental, giving me permission to humanize Malcolm as a father. One of the last stops on my research pilgrimage was with my own Dad, who it turns out interviewed Malcolm at length when he was in Paris. Malcolm had said some disturbing things and the article was never published, some believe at the insistence of the U.S. State Department. Shortly thereafter he returned to New York where he was assassinated. Melvin Van Peebles is many things at once--renaissance man, hustler, revolutionary, wise old sage, player, father, grandfather, friend, comrade, dramatist--and he's layered like that proverbial onion, revealing knowledge only on a "need to know" basis depending on your level and interest. I never knew the motherfucker got to interview Malcolm X. And here he was taking his sweet time about revealing the contents of said discussion. A pause for the revolutionary cause as he savored his stogie reflectively. I grinned slightly at my own annoyance--not too much of course or he'd notice and we'd get way off on some tangent about me letting him take his time as he saw fit. After all it was I who was once again the askee. Anyway like I said, I'd grown accustomed to these dramatic pauses so I resorted to my usual tact, studying the lines of his hands and face. As a kid I'd often sketch out a quick cartoon of him. The jutting defiant jaw, the droop of his moustache, his heavy lids, I had him nailed. But today I was on a mission, any move for pen or paper could result in delay. It's interesting as a son to take a good long look at your old man. You can't help wondering if you'll end up aging like this guy. How much of you is in him? Or vice versa? Genetics? Karma? Mannerisms? Expressions? Couldn't the son of a bitch have had more hair? Well at least I didn't inherit his long graceful chick-like fingers. On some level you kind of want to keep your parents frozen in the suspended animation of your memory. I'd seen his face so many times, in so many incarnations, and yet each time some nuance seemed different, and each time, I as observer was different. Beyond the "mortality" if he buys-the-farm-guess-who's-next-issues, "aging" is inconvenient. It complicates one's ability to place experiences. Was he different when I was a kid? Or was it simply my perspective then? Has he mellowed? Was it "tough love" or "paternal fascism?" And what about now? Can I truly grasp or articulate the complexity of all I feel about him as an adult? The dynamics have leveled out as we both grow as men and yet still we're in a constant state of flux. Especially
Film Information Collapse
[BAADA] | 2004 | 108 | Narrative Feature
Foreign Title: (Baadasssss!)
Premiere: New York
About the Director(s)Collapse
Mario Van Peebles has carved out a substantial career that is redefining and inspiring modern cinema in the same revolutionary style his father, Melvin, pioneered in the 1970s. Van Peebles made his directorial feature debut with New Jack City, in which he also played the starring role. He next directed and starred in the multicultural western, Posse. He received a Director's Guild nomination for his telefilm Malcolm Takes a Shot, and he won the Silver Leopard Award (among others) at the Locarno Film Festival for directing and co-producing Panther, a controversial film about the Black Panther Party. Most recently, Van Peebles portrayed Malcolm X in Michael Mann's Ali and starred in the indie feature The Hebrew Hammer with Adam Goldberg. He has also appeared in the telefilms 44 Minutes, Crown Heights, and Ten Thousand Black Men Named George, where he played Ashley Totten, who helped start the first U.S. union of Pullman train porters.