On April 23, 1971, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song – written, directed, edited, composed and starring Melvin Van Peebles – premiered in Detroit and Altanta. No studio wanted to finance the film, so Melvin used his own money (and a 50,000 loan from Bill Cosby), put together his own crew and working with the confines of the union rules that were in place, shot the film in just 19 days. Despite having no formal musical training, he composed the film’s soundtrack and recruited a young band by the name of Earth, Wind & Fire to perform it. Despite not having a finished film, Melvin was able to promote the movie on radio stations, using the soundtrack as its main source, which was unheard of at the time. The film was an enormous success within the Black community (Huey Newton made it required viewing for all Black Panther members) and according to http://www.imdb.com, went on to gross over 15 million dollars – an unheard of amount for an independent film much less a film with such an overtly Black political message.
Sweetback send shock waves throughout the film industry. While it wasn’t the first ‘blaxpliotation’ film (that honor has to go to Uptight) Hollywood quickly developed movies aimed squarely at Black audiences – minus the overtly political messages and done, with a few noted exceptions, with white directors. According to Melvin, Hollywood’s response to his success with Sweetback was that they tore up a contract for a planned three film deal. The movie also went on to inspire two generations of independent filmmakers including Spike Lee, Quentin Tarentino, Robert Townshend, Robert Rodriguez, Charles Burnett and Tyler Perry.
Without Sweetback, there’s no Shaft, no Superfly, The Spook Who Sat By The Door, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, and of course, his son Mario, who has directed several great films including New Jack City and Baadasssss, which tells the story of the making of the 1971 classic.
Melvin Van Peebles has gone on, of course, to become an iconic filmmaker, writer, producer and musician. He’s even turned Sweetback into a musical, which has been performed to ecstatic audiences here in the States and overseas. It was during the production of the musical that I got to meet and know Melvin. I’m proud to say he’s become a friend and a mentor to me and all of those who aspire to thrive in the arts.
If you haven’t seen Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, rent it, buy it and see the film that changed Black cinema – and Hollywood – forever.
Thank you Melvin. Can’t wait to see and hear what you have next!