Famously dedicated to "Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of The Man" and rated X by "an all-white jury," Melvin Van Peebles' revolutionary 1971 cult classic Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song ignited the blaxploitation boom while permanently changing the image and content of black popular entertainment. Shot on a shoestring budget and financed by its writer-director-star, along with an assist from Bill Cosby, the film served as an angry rebuke to decades of crude cinematic stereotyping and meek assimilationist fare. By the time he revolutionized black film with Sweetback, Van Peebles had already made two films in two different languages on two different continents, written novels in French, worked as a journalist, and established himself as a musician whose work anticipated hip-hop.
Sweetback also marked the cinematic debut of Melvin Van Peebles' son Mario, who went on to follow in his father's cinematic footsteps, making his breakthrough as the director and co-star of the successful and influential 1991 crime drama New Jack City. Mario then directed and starred in the Western Posse and brought his father's novel Panther to the big screen. Mario spent much of the rest of the '90s appearing in low-budget, B-movie fare, but he rebounded in 2001 with a revelatory performance as Malcolm X in Michael Mann's underrated biopic Ali. Mario's comeback continues with Baadasssss!, a unique and entertaining film dramatizing Melvin's travails in getting Sweetback made. Mario directed and co-wrote Baadasssss!, and he stars in it, playing his own father. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Melvin and Mario Van Peebles about Sweetback, Baadasssss!, shaking up the system, and the family business.
The Onion: How did Baadasssss! come about?
Mario Van Peebles: I was on the set of Ali. [Muhammad] Ali's got a good, sardonic wit. He kept saying to me, "Hey, boy, your daddy still getting some?" and "If you were any smarter, I'd enjoy your company." We started talking about how he was one of the first athletes to not just use the ring to box, but to stand for something, and Melvin Van Peebles was one of the first film directors in that same period to not just entertain, but to make edutainment—to stand for something. And then I was researching Malcolm, and it turned out that my father had interviewed him. This was when Malcolm was in France, and he said, "If they won't let you work in their restaurant, make your own restaurant, and if they don't want you in their movies, then make your own movies." It was like By Any Means filmmaking. I wound up having to make this film in the spirit of the original, with folks of all colors on both sides, the crew and everything, and getting some of the original folks to come back and participate, which was exciting.
O: Could you talk a little bit about what it was like making The Watermelon Man for a studio?
Melvin Van Peebles: Actually, my first feature, I made in France. There's a great respect for the author there—they don't change your stuff. There, it's unthinkable, whereas here, they'll change anything. That was, of course, not the Hollywood way of doing things. I wanted to do my vision. Before I made Sweetback, I had a three-picture deal with Columbia and enough juice, if I was real clever with it, to proclaim that I wanted to do an independent film. I just said I wanted to make a film with a girl I knew, so the unions would leave me alone. That's how they let me do the movie—you just couldn't do a non-union movie in Hollywood unless it was a porno film. They didn't bother with that, so I told the guys that I was doing a porno film. Of course, it went on too long for the shooting schedule, because it was a serious film by that time. But at that point, I was out in the desert where no one could find me. I was below their radar. They didn't know exactly where I was in the desert.
O: How did getting Story Of A 3-Day Pass made in France compare to getting Sweetback made?
Melvin: Sweetback was outside the loan community, in that it was totally financed by myself, whereas with the French movie, there were subsidies you could get if you were a legitimate filmmaker. Of course, that's a system we don't have here. However, the French consider me French, so I was able to benefit from that. Their attitude is much closer to the theatrical attitude toward a play. They don't really monkey with the playwright's words. When we talk about Sweetback, yes, it stars the whole black movement, but it's also the first time an independent film made that kind of money and was that successful and taken seriously.
Mario: It was the top-grossing independent film up until that time. It made $16 million, which today would be $120 million. That's not bad for an independent film.
O: And for an X-rated film, especially. Did you think about doing an R-rated version of Sweetback?
Melvin: Never. They had a rule at the time that if you make a picture in the States, and you don't go to the motion-picture board, it's an automatic X. No matter if it's Porky Pig. I refused to go to the MPAA because I said they did not represent my peers. I wouldn't go, so they gave me an automatic X. The content of the film has never been judged.
O: Do you think being rated X worked in its favor? That it added to its outlaw sensibility?
Melvin: No. But eventually, it began to play everywhere, and people just sort of ignored it.
Mario: They ignored the rating. But my dad did turn it into a little marketing campaign. He made up T-shirts saying "Rated X by an all-white jury."
Melvin: [MPAA head Jack] Valenti went ballistic. He said "You can't do that!" and I said, "You're all white, aren't you?" "Yeah, of course." But that doesn't have anything to do with it, right?
Mario: Have you seen the documentary Classified X? [A 1998 TV documentary on Hollywood's treatment of black directors, the film was scripted and narrated by Melvin Van Peebles. —ed.] Because his take was that they'd been showing X-rated images for a long time. Which for him meant demeaning images of people other than the dominant culture. Why submit to that?
Melvin: For instance, when they say that the X rating is to protect young minds, well, hell, that messed with my mind. If the ratings are based solely on the nudity or the language, not even the violence, then I think you've lost all credibility to decide what gets an X or not.
O: Mario, you have one of the more audacious film-acting debuts. Could you talk a little bit about what it was like to act in a film as a child, especially appearing in the scene where Sweetback loses his virginity?
Mario: I'm looking for another shot to do that scene. [Laughs.] In fact, we're going to audition a little later here in town. My mother and I hitchhiked out to Altamont to see The Rolling Stones together when I was a kid, and my dad and I did stuff together. I had unusual parents. We'd been to Europe. We'd been in the theater. We were sort of like the Addams Family. That wasn't the first scene I wanted to do. I wanted to do the blowing-up-the-car scene, and I got to do both. I didn't end up cutting my afro like you see in the movie. I think the big thing is that we're different people and different parents.
At the end of the day, I respect what this guy stood for. If you and I are doing this interview, and a plane flies into the building, any differences we have are eclipsed by this bigger event. If you and I run and we get the hell out of the building, but then we go back and start pulling people out, I'll know something about your character and you'll know something about mine that you might not have learned in 10 years, let alone 10 minutes.
So what I saw with him was that he was willing to stand up and say, "Not only am I going to change the way that Hollywood looks at minorities, but I'm going to change the perception of who makes these movies, in that the crew is going to be a more accurate reflection of America than what we have now." So it's 50 percent white folks, Latinos, Hispanics, Asians, women. I saw him standing up for things other than the bling-bling, standing up for things other than self. I guess I got a different kind of respect, because I saw him as human in that process, which eclipsed all our other differences. We have differences now. We still get on each other's case, but at the end of the day, I really respect what this guy stood for, and I think he feels the same way about me.
O: Do you feel like making the film enabled you to better understand your father and what he went through?
Mario: Absolutely. Even before that, when I directed New Jack City and later Posse and Panther, any time you're not just making films that are obvious money-makers, where Hollywood says, you know, "James Bond makes money, and Charlie's Angels makes money, so if we do Charlie's Angels meets James Bond, we'll make more money…" Not making pictures like that is going to be a struggle, especially if you do it independently.
Initially, when I wanted to do the movie, I sent the script out to the studios, and I'd get those notes that homogenize projects. You know, "Make Melvin more likable. Make the movie less sexy, more funny, less funny, more for the black folks of the hip-hop era, make it more for white folks, do this and that." I didn't do any of that, because his life was all that. He grew up on the south side of Chicago. He's got the French Legion Of Honor. He knows people of all colors. He's mad at racism, sexism, and systemism, but he's not pissed off at human beings. That's got to come across, too. He's an eclectic guy, a renaissance guy.
Where European films have humor and tragedy and sex—all those things, like real life does—we tend to put things in different slots. This one doesn't really fall in a slot that way. We played it in Geneva, and it went just great. This guy said, "Hey, man, we're in the Red Cross. We see all these human-rights violations, all the nasty things that people do to each other. Your movie brought a little light into the world."
O: Melvin, you wrote novels in French and lived there. How would you compare the racial atmosphere in France to that in the U.S. when you got back?
Melvin: Vis-à-vis the Africans or African-Americans, it was not as rigid. I worked in France and I lived in France, so I was considered a Frenchman. I discovered that a French writer could have a temporary director's card to bring his own vision to the screen. I worked at it and turned myself into a French writer, and worked on books and became a journalist for a number of large newspapers. I asked for a director's card, and the guy asked me if I worked, and I said, "Yeah, I work. I write in French." Once I had the director's card, I was able to do the rest.
O: In the film, Mario discusses how whites didn't understand the extent of police brutality.
Melvin: That's interesting. One of the many criticisms made about Sweetback was that it was not real, because the police would never act like that. Of course, 15 years later, when things were supposed to be better, we had Rodney King. As Mario says in Baadasssss!, it divided the crew for a moment, because the white crew said, "The police don't act like that." A lot of people didn't realize or understand the difference, and it became very clear. Time has vindicated me.
O: So you feel like people better understand the extent of police brutality because of Sweetback and the films that followed it?
Melvin: And the camcorders. They're still denying it. When Sweetback came out, that was considered one of the flaws of the movie.
Mario: It was considered a flawed premise, because it could never happen. What's interesting about going back to the reviews of Sweetback is that the minorities at the time had an advantage, and that advantage was that as minorities, they were a subset of the dominant culture. As a subset, you watch the main culture. We go see Arnold Schwarzenegger or whoever, and we watch their movies, but they might not come and see our movies. So we're aware of both and we have to be bicultural.
Melvin: Not even movies, just of life.
Mario: So when the reviewers came out and they saw Sweetback, whichever ones did, one of them said things about how the sound was garbled and didn't work and was technically flawed, but black folks understood it exactly, because it was Ebonics. But the white reviewers were at a disadvantage. If he didn't understand something because he'd never examined it, it wasn't "I don't understand it," it's "It doesn't work." They're wrong.
Melvin: One of the union guys who was risking his skin by working for me called me and said, "Sir, we have a problem. I don't know what went wrong with my soundman, my sound machine or something, but all of yesterday's shoot, we have to do over again. I can't understand what the guy is saying. I tried to slow it down, I tried to speed it up." So the guy comes over to me… This is a guy who's already on my team who's making this big risk, so there was no question of arrogance or hubris or anything else. But the scene was where Beetle was coming out of the toilet and going, "Yo, bro, we gotta chop the scopes." He didn't understand what the guy was saying, so he assumed that the machinery was broken. It never dawned on him that he was talking English, because why couldn't he understand it if it was in English?
For example, the movie could have been called The Ballad Of The Indomitable Sweetback. When I signed the contract, the guy said, "You've got to change the title, because I don't understand that." I said, "It doesn't matter. My audience will understand it." Mario is exactly correct. The assumption was not "I don't understand." The arrogance was such that they thought, "It must be a mistake." Or the way I used music has now become ubiquitous, in that it's a selling tool for the film, but it's also a character.
O: It seems like one of the reasons Sweetback was such a phenomenon was because it was a black movie for black audiences. Did any previous films fit that bill?
Melvin: Personally, I do movies the way I cook. I put in what I like, in case nobody else likes it and I have to eat it for the rest of the week. But I saw Baadasssss! for the first time in Toronto, and I thought it was genius the way Mario captured the same spirit of the movie. Now, the way I use color and sound, it's ubiquitous. Before, I was considered crazy. I wasn't trying to be Nouvelle Vague or New Wave or any of that. I just did it the way I saw it.
O: Were there any cinematic images of blacks before Sweetback that you connected with, that you thought had the ring of truth?
Melvin: One. That was Dooley Wilson in Casablanca. He didn't have to shuffle or do nothing. He just played the piano. In the ghetto, we'd make them stop the movie and re-run it, put it back in, because we'd never seen that.
O: Do you feel like you've been given enough credit for your contributions to black and independent film?
Melvin: It depends what you want. What I wanted to do was make it possible for minorities and disenfranchised whites to have a shot. I did it. Tell him about the pool-hall analogy you told me the other day, son.
Mario: Well, it's kind of like after my dad did Sweetback, he didn't have any other job offers. Sweetback has never been distributed foreign. One of the things you have to understand is that what he did was like going into a pool hall and playing around, missing the ball, scratching the table, until the stakes get nice and high, and then running the table. He ran the table in Hollywood, and walked out with a pocket full of money. But you can't go back to that same pool hall now that they know your game. So all they did was usurp the game. They took Shaft, which had been written for a white detective, and made him black, and then they did what would later become called blaxploitation. It's like if La Bamba makes a lot of money, and you and I say, "You know what, let's hire some Mexicans to write some songs, and make some movies with Mexicans, so we can make some of that La Bamba money." And those movies do okay, and after a while they don't, and after a while, you stop looking for them and say, "Well, we're not seeing Mexican movies anymore." That's truly Mexicansploitaiton, because it's not a movie by that culture. Whereas Sweetback was, and the subsequent movies took it in another direction. Where the Panthers said that Sweetback made being a revolutionary cool, made empowerment cool, subsequent movies made by studios made being a cop maintaining the status quo or being a drug dealer cool. They still understood the power of an afro and a gun, but now he's got a badge or he's dealing drugs. That becomes exploitative. It's a little subtle trick they do. But the bigger win is that he did permanently change what those crews look like.
Melvin: So for me personally, to answer your question, did I get credit? I got a zillion credits. Me personally? Of course not. But it was empowering to the disenfranchised, to know that you could do it. Big deal, but you'd have to be very naïve to think you would. But I ran the table. I couldn't go back into that pool hall for a while.
O: Did you ever think Sweetback might not find an audience?
Melvin: It never dawned on me. Of course they were going to understand it. Once, a guy at MGM said to me, "The film is surrealistic, and your people don't understand surrealism." Hell, I didn't understand surrealism. I was doing what I saw. You can put a title that is only talking in esoteric circles and then double back. But the opening of Sweetback says something very clearly: "Sire, this is not something that the artist has invented. This is the ode from the mouth of reality." I was just calling it like it was. And a bunch of people saw that I was calling it like it was.