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Shaft may have been a bad motherfucker, but he wasn’t the original badass. Make that baadasssss: In 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, writer, director, and star Melvin Van Peebles introduced the world’s first ghetto action hero, a gigolo-cum-revolutionary whom Van Peebles unapologetically showed having sex and killing whitey. Sweet Sweetback, widely credited with being the inaugural blaxploitation film, was also produced independently—a movie “by the brothers, for the brothers, about the brothers.” In both content and execution, it was, in other words, about “getting the Man’s foot out yo ass!”
At least that’s how it’s emphatically described in Baadasssss!, Mario Van Peebles’ tribute to his father’s genre-launching labor of love. With Baadasssss!, Mario shows how much he takes after Dad, not only by playing director, scriptwriter (along with Dennis Haggerty, working from Melvin’s making-of book), and star, but also by funding the project with indie money, bypassing studios who wanted to lighten up both the script’s tone and Melvin’s somewhat cantankerous personality.
The younger Van Peebles’ magnetic performance as the cranky Renaissance man makes it difficult to imagine the character any other way. Besides, it’s apparently accurate: When giving Mario his blessing to go ahead with Baadasssss!, Poppa Van Peebles’ one stipulation was, “Well, don’t make me too fucking nice.”
Melvin may not be a basket of kittens, but his determination and cunning in bringing to life, against all odds, his vision of “all the faces that Norman Rockwell never painted” certainly makes an engrossing story. Baadasssss! begins in 1970, after Melvin has just finished the hotly hyped comedy Watermelon Man and is becoming something of a hot director. In fact, Hollywood’s self-described “token niggerologist” is about to sign a three-picture deal with Columbia. Melvin is urged by his agent, Howie (Saul Rubinek), to pitch more things along the lines of his breakthrough film—Fried Chicken Man, perhaps—and fast, so he can get a contract inked before Watermelon Man hits theaters. After all, the thing could still bomb.
Instead of tossing off another comedy, though, Melvin pauses to consider how blacks are traditionally portrayed in movies, as well as the new social climate. “America was changing,” he says in Baadasssss!’s narration. “Brothers knew it, students knew it, Hollywood was ignoring it.” Enter the idea for a “street revolutionary” who’d be “as serious as cancer.” Not that Melvin ever intended Sweetback to be dull: For his next feature to earn big box office, he reasons, “entertainment-wise, it had to be a motherfucker.”
In Baadasssss!, it’s Melvin’s idealism as much as his race that makes him a Hollywood underdog. He is undeterred by Columbia’s refusal to touch the Sweetback script, convinced that he can raise the money himself. He further insists on having a 50 percent minority crew, an arrangement sure to be rejected by the industry’s “lily-white” unions—and which Melvin gets around by shooting Sweetback’s sex scenes first and passing it off as a “beaver flick.” The unions, of course, don’t do porn. Even the inaccessibility of high-priced SAG actors doesn’t deter the young director, who turns the movie into a family affair by employing his daughter, Megan (Penny Bae Bridges), and, more famously, 13-year-old Mario (Khleo Thomas), who performs a nude sex scene. “The boy can handle it,” Melvin declares—a decision that makes a strange contrast to his refusal to let Megan wear makeup in her role.
As portrayed by Mario—equipped with not only his father’s jutting jaw but also his handlebar mustache and ever-present cigar—Melvin is maverick, hustler, and, most important, natural leader, easily inspiring people with his intelligence and hope of interracial understanding. Baadasssss!’s characterization of Melvin certainly doesn’t make him seem “too fucking nice,” especially when dealing with those who are ready to give up on his apparently impossible cinematic dream. But even when he’s threatening to throw someone off a roof or disciplining his already well-behaved kids, Melvin remains sympathetic—an impressive combination of Mario’s charisma and the film’s script, which is carefully constructed to show Melvin as not anti-white but anti-narrow-mindedness.
Though joyously outsized, Baadasssss!’s character study is somewhat marred by Mario’s tendency toward heavy-handedness. In one scene, for example, Melvin effortlessly climbs a rope after a white producer tries to show off by doing the same. Era-appropriate visual flourishes don’t help, either, especially when Melvin’s body is burning in the desert to represent the mental and physical toll of Sweetback’s various challenges. (Similar embellishment is used to better effect earlier in the film, when Melvin is shown searching for inspiration.) The American Splendor–ish technique of occasionally interrupting the action for documentary-style interviews with actors portraying Melvin’s supporters—who included Bill Cosby (T.K. Carter), wannabe-actress/assistant Priscilla (Joy Bryant), and porn producer Clyde Houston (David Alan Grier)—is self-conscious but successful.
Commentary from Melvin’s real-life crew runs during the credits, including the members of then-little-known Earth, Wind & Fire, who supplied Sweetback’s soundtrack. (The group’s music, Melvin says, “worked like a motherfucker.”) Though bits of Sweetback are almost seamlessly incorporated into Baadasssss!, the real Melvin the Great doesn’t make an appearance himself until the last shot, as if to confer genuineness on the film’s many grand claims. Even the real Cosby’s closing words of wisdom, about how it’s OK to follow your dream “but the first thing you do is wake up,” are set up to seem inspired by Melvin, visionary genius, pioneer of blaxploitation and independent cinema, discoverer of Earth, Wind & Fire. Bold assertions, all. But then you catch a glimpse of the silver-haired, supercool fox and think, Hell, they gotta be true. CP