I recall the first time I saw Melvin Van Peebles in person, at a Museum of the Moving Image tribute event in New York City, in early 2008, for the late St. Clair Bourne, who’d recently passed (December 2007).
It was a moment I wouldn’t soon forget.
In short, during the tribute, which had the likes of Armond White, George Alexander and Esther Iverem as panelists, many attendees in the audience lamented “black cinema” and mourned after losing one of its leaders and the void in leadership in his absence.
While some chose to mourn Bourne’s passing, Mr. Van Peebles, who many didn’t realize was present, standing in the rear of the vast theater, opted to instead use the moment to challenge the audience; specifically, he announced his presence without announcing his presence, launching into what I’d describe as a lecture on the virtues of self-reliance – his intentional voice carrying across the large auditorium.
“Stop complaining and do something… look within yourselves and be your own leader!” was his clarion call in short — a mantra that much influenced his own personal aspirations and motivations, as he told me during a lengthy chat I would have with him in his New York City apartment several years later, just before his 80th birthday, while reliving cherished past moments from his life, of which there were several; each was a lesson that helped shape and mold the man that he would eventually become.
Nearly every head turned to either learn who this bold and abrasive voice belonged to (or already knew it was Melvin Van Peebles, but turned to acknowledge him anyway); the room fell silent as he continued, and remained that way for a few moments after he ended what probably felt like a scolding to some, almost as if shamed.
Others, like myself and the friends I was with on that glorious day, felt like applauding, because he’d voiced what we were also thinking in that moment, but obviously didn’t have the courage to say, or couldn’t think of a way to say it with tact. It’s one thing if Melvin Van Peebles, one of indie cinema’s elder statesmen we could say, speaks the words; it’s another thing to hear it from some young “punks” who think they “know it all.”
And don’t be fooled by his slight stature; his confidence is unrivaled. But as he jokingly told me during our meeting, that he doesn’t exactly cut an imposing figure has been to his advantage; most don’t expect him to be as gruff, and others are quick to dismiss him even when they discover that he is – however unwisely.
An Air Force pilot, San Francisco cable car gripman, novelist (author of five books… in French!), painter, sculptor, pioneer rapper, twice-Tony-nominated Broadway playwright, local news commentator, Wall Street trader and all-around provocateur, Melvin Van Peebles will turn 86 years old on August 21! We must do something in his honor when that time comes, but meanwhile, you should know that film preservationist and distributor Vinegar Syndrome and production and distribution house Xenon Pictures have restored his landmark work of cinema, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, in 4K from the original camera negative and will release it on Blu-ray on May 29 with insightful special features. It’s amazing that the film wasn’t already available on Blu-ray, so this is much welcomed news for film buffs!
Quite possibly one of the most polarizing “black films” ever made, with the intellectual and ideological fissure happening especially across class lines within the black community at then, the 1971 film is often the cinematic reference point for radical, subversive black cinema during one of the more contentious periods in American history. The disunity played out on the public stage, exemplified by Huey P. Newton’s devoting an entire The Black Panther issue to the film’s revolutionary implications (“He Won’t Bleed Me: A Revolutionary Analysis of ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song'”); and then Lerone Bennet’s scathing takedown of the film with “The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland” in Ebony (which Ed Guerrero called the then “principal organ of the black bourgeoisie,”) magazine’s September 1971 issue.
A film that practically jump-started Blaxploitation cinema (even though that certainly wasn’t Van Peebles’ intent with his film), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song exploded box office charts despite being an all-black indie production before there was such a thing, becoming mandatory viewing for the Black Panthers while roiling nationwide controversy.
Van Peebles directed some 10 films, but Sweet Sweetback is the one title that most know him for, and the film people ask him about most. When I inquired years ago if he ever gets tired of answering questions about the work, while viewers often ignore his other lesser-known titles, his response was: “I talk about life. So no, I don’t get tired because I don’t talk about it. I talk about life. I’m from the South Side of Chicago – the hood. Started out selling secondhand clothes to winos. So, no, not at all. Sweetback is a perfect example of what is possible, so if that’s what they know, then it’s OK to talk about it. You can use that as a jumping off place for other conversation. I could care less. My job is to get it over with; whatever it takes!”
“Rated X By An All-White Jury,” as the film’s marketing campaign exclaimed, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is one of the most profitable purely indie films ever made, turning a $150,000 budget into a whopping $15 million box office take.
In the film, Van Peebles plays Sweet Sweetback, an orphan brought up in a brothel who now performs for its clientele. When the Los Angeles police need a fall guy for the murder of a black man, Sweetback’s boss sells him out. After escaping from police custody, Sweetback embarks on a rampaging flight through Los Angeles, filled with biker gangs, sexual dalliances and double crosses. Along the way, Van Peebles uses the various narrative entanglements to both exploit and dismantle popular myths about black masculinity.
And now the landmark film is ready to be appreciated by a whole new generation, thanks to Vinegar Syndrome in association with Xenon Pictures. The restoration has been quite an undertaking, as Vinegar Syndrome’s Director of Acquisitions Joe Rubin explains: “Restoring Sweetback was an exceptional challenge due to the condition of the elements, but we’ve done our best to restore the visual splendor to Van Peebles’ exquisitely constructed film and are very pleased to be bringing this extremely relevant work of independent cinema to Blu-ray.”
Xenon Chief Operating Officer Steve Housden adds, “For over 25 years, we’ve worked closely with our good friend Melvin Van Peebles on preserving the legacy of his 1971 masterpiece. This incredible restoration by Vinegar Syndrome is a great step in getting Sweetback and its message seen by younger and future generations. ”
Special features on the restored Blu-ray release include:
— Audio commentary by Melvin Van Peebles
— Brand new interview with actress Niva Rochelle
— Archival “making of” documentary
— Original theatrical trailer
— Essay booklet
— Archival ad and article gallery
Below is the official trailer for the film, although we might be treated to a re-cut version ahead of the May 29 Blu-ray release: