PRINT Summer 2004



MELVIN VAN PEEBLES’S now-legendary Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (which he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in) was the first film to show a black man kill a white man—two white cops, in fact—and get away with it. Rejected by the Hollywood system, it became required viewing for members of the Black Panther Party. But its appeal reached far beyond the radical fringe, as the box-office figures attest: Made independently on a shoestring budget of $150,000 in 1971, Sweet Sweetback grossed over $15 million in the United States, despite opening in only two theaters initially and, because of its X rating, being restricted to the sort of inner-city grind house where tickets cost a dollar. The success of the movie inspired an entire genre, and some two hundred blaxploitation films (as the NAACP dubbed them) were produced before the form petered out mid-decade. Nevertheless, Van Peebles, who had directed The Watermelon Man for Columbia Pictures in 1970, was never again offered a job in Hollywood.

Influenced by Godard and the French New Wave, Van Peebles cleverly cloaked his avant-garde ambitions in the guise of a porn flick to escape the various film unions’ stranglehold on Hollywood film production at that time, and he even hired a prominent black producer of adult entertainment to show him the ropes. Portions of Sweetback—a nickname alluding to the protagonist’s sexual prowess—can seem frankly pornographic, even to the more permissive, contemporary eye, and the opening sequence, in which Sweetback is seen as a boy losing his virginity to an older woman, was as controversial as anything in the movie; if shot today, criminal charges would no doubt be brought against the filmmakers, as the actor who took on the role of young Sweetback was only thirteen years old.

The actor in question, Van Peebles’s son Mario, today a prominent actor and director in his own right (New Jack City [1991], Panther [1995]), has now made a (comedic) biopic documenting his father’s struggle to make that milestone of American independent cinema. Van Peebles the Younger’s Baadasssss!—which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year and just opened theatrically in New York and Los Angeles—is haunted by his father’s art. In fact, Baadasssss! is quite a critical homage to and non-hagiographic portrait of the making of Sweetback. At the center of Van Peebles fils’s movie one senses a troubling oedipal anxiety around the staging of the sex scene that the father ordered his son to perform as a child. (Indeed, at a recent screening sponsored by the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York, the younger Van Peebles referred to his film as “therapy to eat popcorn by.”) But what emerges out of Baadasssss! is a portrait of reparation between father and son as he bravely confronts those primal scenes by exorcising them: He now plays Daddy in his movie, thirty years later. The elder’s self-determination is subtly, even affectionately critiqued as the only option available for a black artist to venture into the possibilities of creating his celluloid dream. This is “our war,” he tells his largely minority crew, who have just spent a weekend in jail (sans their director) after being picked up on suspicion of having stolen their own camera equipment.

The war of representation continues both on-screen and off for African Americans in Hollywood, but from this age-old conflict unexpected complications arise: The current vogue for nostalgia of all kinds is at once a way of not dealing with the present and a return of the repressed. While the demise of the blaxploitation film has been attributed by some to its very nature as a short-cycle genre—studios made increasingly low-budget and formulaic films and so turned viewers away—there is as well a more interesting tale, less often told. After the release of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971 and Superfly in 1972, black leaders and organizations campaigned to close production on films deemed exploitative and racist, no matter that black audiences came out for them in droves. The triumph of political correctness helped kill blaxploitation. But this victory against degrading representations of black people had the unintended effect of making the Hollywood studios reluctant to produce black films or employ black actors, and many black artists were put out of work as a consequence. Perhaps even more seriously, the campaign against these movies cut off an exciting development in American film and muzzled a conversation between races about their shared society.

The blaxploitation genre has, however, been blessed with a long and vibrant afterlife, reinventing itself in the black musical idioms of rap and hip-hop and resurfacing in the “’hood” films of the ’90s and the movies of Quentin Tarantino. Retrospectively, Van Peebles père’s film could be read as a poetic political allegory of the Black Power movement’s desire for égalité—black fantasy as a form of political pleasure with a few “babes” thrown in. As the director put it, he knew Sweetback had to be “entertainment-wise a mother fucker. I had no illusion about the attention level of people brain-washed to triviality,” Van Peebles continued. “The film simply couldn’t be a didactic discourse which would end up playing to an empty theater except for ten or twenty aware brothers who would pat me on the back and say it tells it like it is.” Oddly enough, perhaps Van Peebles’s son has done just that, aesthetically eschewing the poetic filmic form of his father’s but nonetheless portraying him with surrealistic touches. The most intriguing scenes are, for me, those in which Mario Van Peebles doubles himself uncannily, simultaneously playing the dark side and the good side of “the father” at moments where he battles his alter ego: “Niggers ain’t shit,” he says to himself. “Fuck you,” he snaps back, his id splitting apart. We begin to sense, through his portrayal, that the “black stereotype” has developed its own internal poetics as these kinds of images recirculate with each generation and contribute to the archive of a lost black cinema, creating a complex interiority attuned to the psychic unrest of his father’s quest for self-representation and, indeed, black America’s continued economic and psychic battles for cinematic reparation.

Isaac Julien is an artist and the director of the 2002 documentary BaadAsssss Cinema.