The unprecedented commercial success of Melvin Van Peebles' incendiary 1971 independent film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song supported the then-revolutionary idea that a huge, untapped market awaited uncompromising black films that made no concessions to white audiences. Famously rated X by, as the posters pointed out, "an all-white jury," Sweetback aspired to refute decades of cinematic stereotyping by focusing on a strong, overtly sexual black man who not only takes on "The Man," but survives.
But before Van Peebles could revolutionize black film and kick-start the blaxploitation boom, he first had to get Sweetback made, an ordeal as dramatic as anything in his cult classic. As the new biopic Baadasssss! shows, Sweetback's origin story is far more compelling than the film itself, which can charitably be described as raw and unpolished, and uncharitably described as misogynistic, self-indulgent, and borderline incompetent.
The making of Van Peebles' movie is memorably brought to the big screen by his writer-director-actor son Mario Van Peebles, who plays his own father, and gifted young child actor Khleo Thomas, who plays the young Mario as a sad-eyed bundle of insecurities. The elder Van Peebles is a role Mario was literally born to play, and he's co-written himself a hell of a part. The Van Peebles are not known for their humility, and the portrait of Melvin that emerges in Baadasssss! is ultimately heroic, but it's also unexpectedly critical and multidimensional.
Baadasssss! colorfully conveys what a major accomplishment Sweetback was, but it also makes apparent that in Melvin's undying passion to bring his vision to life, he was more than willing to bruise egos and hurt feelings, especially those of his long-suffering family. Mario's film presents Melvin as a passionate rebel willing to suffer for his art, but he's also a harsh and demanding father, an unfaithful husband, and a mercurial collaborator. (At one point, when the earnest white kid editing Sweetback dares to quit, a half-crazed Melvin whales on him.)
Baadasssss! has its rough edges: Some of its artier conceits fall flat, as does the faux-documentary talking-head footage, and there are a few too many shots of Mario looking studly atop a motorcycle. But Baadasssss! is a vibrant, funny, fully realized slice of oft-overlooked cultural, show-business, and black history. It's better than the film whose genesis it chronicles, though inherently doomed to be nowhere near as important.