Van Peebles honors his father’s struggle

Times Staff Writer

Back in 1971 Melvin Van Peebles, already one of the first black directors to have had a film in general release with “Watermelon Man” the year before, scorched screens across America with “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” a surreal odyssey in which Van Peebles played a pimp on the lam after becoming involved in the killing of a brutal cop.

The film’s seeming incoherence, intended or otherwise, became expressive of Sweetback’s predicament and induced identification with him. By the end of the film, Sweetback emerged a symbol of defiance of mythic proportions. Stylistically, “Sweetback’s” had much in common with such dynamic contemporary films as “Point Blank,” “Get Carter” and “Vanishing Point,” but as an expression of black power it became a political and cultural landmark and paved the way for other African American filmmakers.

It was gratifying to review a film of such groundbreaking importance, and it is no less gratifying to write about “Baadasssss!”, Mario Van Peebles’ corrosive yet often hilarious account of the epic struggle his father, Melvin, endured in making “Sweetback’s.” “Baadasssss!” has a mythic quality, to be sure, but it consistently rings true to its time and circumstances, and it explodes with passion, humor and sheer nerve. In adapting his father’s book on the film’s making and in playing his father as well, Mario Van Peebles has done his parent proud and in the process has made his most accomplished film to date. For all its serious issues, “Baadasssss!” is terrific fun.

“Baadasssss!” finds Melvin Van Peebles’ agent (Saul Rubinek) urging him to sign a three-picture deal with Columbia before “Watermelon Man” is released. No wonder: It proved to be a misfired satire in which Godfrey Cambridge starred as a white bigot who one morning wakes up black. It had not been a happy experience for Van Peebles, who swiftly realized that he needed to work independently. Van Peebles, who had published a book of poetry on his experiences as a San Francisco cable car conductor, had gone to France to make his directorial debut with “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” a poignant interracial romance that took the top prize at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1968. Now he wanted to make a film that reflected the turbulent times black people were experiencing in America.


With little money to work with, Van Peebles goes about assembling a multiracial cast and crew, and just as filming commences at L.A. locales on a projected 20-day schedule his key backer pulls out. He has no recourse but to commit his life savings of $72,000 to the project. He is soon dodging unions and creditors while holding together a ragtag cast and crew. The more calamities mount the more determined Van Peebles becomes.

The key to “Baadasssss!'s” appeal is that it sees the humor, some of it bleak, some of it uproarious, in Van Peebles’ escalating adversities, which inevitably include racism, while not flinching in depicting the obsessive, ruthlessly single-minded man Van Peebles became in getting the job done. Yet as rough as he was on his cast and crew, he inspired them. His son’s film is rich in incidents that just have to be true because it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking them up. The then-13-year-old Mario (Khleo Thomas) was recruited to play Sweetback losing his virginity, a role Mario was not eager to play -- especially if it meant trimming his Afro. Melvin Van Peebles did have some breaks: At one point Bill Cosby came to the rescue with $50,000, and the just-emerging Earth, Wind and Fire overlooked a bounced $500 check.

With his co-writer Dennis Haggerty and his cameraman Robert Primes, Mario Van Peebles has created a handsome yet gritty film with a strong narrative thrust, punchy dialogue and vivid characterizations. The film is a mosaic of intricate scenes and situations, combined with running commentary, but it flows smoothly. Van Peebles portrays his father as a hero but in a winningly unpretentious fashion. While he surely dominates, there are many sharp supporting portrayals, among them Ossie Davis as Melvin’s stalwart father, Adam West as a smooth-talking gay producer, Vincent Schiavelli as legendary exploitation picture distributor Jerry Gross and Len Lesser as the twin Detroit exhibitors Manny and Mort Goldberg, who reluctantly booked the film at their Grand Circus Theater, from which it went on to become the top-grossing independent film of the year.

In its spirit and execution, “Baadasssss!” lives up to its forebear.



MPAA rating: R for pervasive language and some strong sexuality/nudity

Times guidelines: Unsuitable for children

Mario Van Peebles...Melvin Van Peebles

Joy Bryant...Priscilla

T. K. Carter...Bill Cosby

Big T...Terry Crews

Ossie Davis...Granddad

A Sony Pictures Classics release of an MVP Filmz production. Producer-director Mario Van Peebles. Executive producers Michael Mann, Jerry Offsay. Screenplay by Mario Van Peebles & Dennis Haggerty; based on the book “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Cinematographer Robert Primes. Editors Anthony Miller, Nneka Goforth. Music Tyler Bates. Costumes Kara Saun. Production designer Alan E. Muraoka. Art director Jorge Gonzales Borrelli. Set decorator Galit Reuben. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

In general release.