Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Badasss Song was an important turning point in American independent and African American cinema. The immediate consequence of its success was Hollywood's response of the so-called blaxpoitation genre (although there is a debate as to whether Sweet Sweetback's itself should be considered an exploitation film). The longer legacy of the film was its influence on subsequent African American independent filmmakers. As Spike Lee stated, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song gave us all the answers we needed. This was an example of how to make a film (a real movie), distribute it yourself, and most important, get paid. Without Sweetback who knows if there could have been a. . . She's Gotta Have It, Hollywood Shuffle, or House Party?"
In addition to the film itself, Netflix Watch Instantly is also streaming two documentaries featuring Melvin Van Peebles that should help put Sweet Sweetback's in context. Not currently streaming, but also worth looking at on DVD, is Mario Van Peebles's tribute to his father's film, Baadasssss! from 2003.
Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, USA, 1971, 97 minutes)
Netflix: Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles) is an apolitical African American sex performer who becomes a reluctant hero when he kills the white policemen who brutalized a young prisoner for racist reasons. On the run to Mexico, he encounters numerous interesting characters. Putting black cinema on the map and ushering in the 1970s blaxploitation genre, Van Peebles's thrilling work is also a historically and ideologically significant essay on race relations. Netflix link.
How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) (Joe Angio, USA, 2007, 84 minutes)
Netflix: Joe Angio's award-winning documentary chronicles the remarkable career of influential African-American filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles. Through archival footage and interviews, the film traces Van Peebles's life as a director, Air Force pilot, actor, musician, novelist and stock trader. Spike Lee, Gil Scott-Heron, Gordon Parks and son Mario Van Peebles are among the admirers who discuss the artist's contributions to film and other areas. Netflix link.
Classified X (Mark Daniels, USA, 1998, 52 minutes)
Netflix: Actor and filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) explores the depiction of African-Americans in film in this incisive documentary. Starting with some of the first silent films, Van Peebles uses clips and stills from more than 70 movies to explore racism and stereotyping in Hollywood and independent cinema. Cinephiles as well as anyone interested in social history will find much to think about here. Netflix link.
Below is one of the original trailers for Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song. I look forward to your reactions and feedback in the comments section. --JLK