Melvin Van Peebles, who started a cinematic revolution with ‘Sweet Sweetback,’ dies at 89

A man wears a suit and a pink tie
Portrait of American film actor and director Melvin Van Peebles, New York, 1986.
(Anthony Barboza / Getty Images)

Melvin Van Peebles, the Black filmmaker, novelist and playwright, whose audacious, rebellious work had an influence on generations of artists, has died at age 89.

A statement released by the Criterion Collection and Janus Films — scheduled to release a box set of Van Peebles’s work next week — said the filmmaker died at his home in New York with family.

In a testament to his continued relevance, a restoration of his best known film, 1971’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” was previously set for a 50th anniversary tribute this weekend at the New York Film Festival, and his Tony-nominated play “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” is planned for a revival on Broadway next year. His debut feature film, 1968’s interracial romance “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” was rereleased in theaters earlier this year.

Speaking to The Times in 1968, Van Peebles displayed his showman’s flair and disarmingly blunt demeanor when he said, “The point isn’t that I’m Black or white, but that I’m a genius.” He added, “I don’t have to prove myself to other people. If they can’t accept me as a human being, that’s their problem, not mine.”

A man in a black coat and black top hat
Melvin Van Peebles directed, wrote and starred in the landmark indie film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”

Though “Sweet Sweetback” is often referred to as a predecessor to the “blaxploitation” movement of the 1970s, in his original 1971 review, Times critic Kevin Thomas compared the film to such contemporaneous works of fragmented, existential energy as “Point Blank,” “Get Carter” and “Vanishing Point.” Revisiting the film in 2004, Thomas also noted that “as an expression of Black power it became a political and cultural landmark and paved the way for other African-American filmmakers.”

Van Peebles, wrote, produced, directed, edited, scored and starred in the film himself, which became the top-grossing independent film of 1971, bringing in more than $10 million from a reported $500,000 investment even after receiving an X rating — “from an all-white jury,” as advertising declared. Van Peebles played a sex show performer who goes on the run after a pair of racist cops frame him for a crime he didn’t commit.

The film’s revolutionary spirit was encapsulated by a title card that read, “This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man.” In 2020 the film was named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

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A man in a brown shirt, right, has his arm over a man wearing a cab hat and a jacket holding a cigar
Filmmaker Mario Van Peebles, left, with Melvin Van on the set of the movie ‘Baadasssss!’
(Sony Pictures Classics)

In 2003, Van Peebles’ son Mario Van Peebles played his father in “Baadasssss!” a feature adaption of Melvin Van Peebles’ book on the making of his landmark film.

In a statement, Mario Van Peebles said of his father, “Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”

Born August 21, 1932, in Chicago, Van Peebles would graduate from Ohio Wesleyan University and go on to serve in the Air Force. After working as a cable car operator and postman in San Francisco, where he made several short films, he moved to Europe and published a series of novels.

Van Peebles’ 1968 debut feature, “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” based on a novel he wrote in French, told the story of an Black American G.I. in Paris, played by Henry Baird, who falls in love with a white Frenchwoman, played by Nicole Berger, combining the expressive energy of the French New Wave with an emotional intensity all his own.

A black-and-white photo of a woman with her hand on the shoulders of a man
Nicole Berger and Harry Baird in Melvin Van Peebles’ “The Story of a Three-Day Pass.”

That lead to Van Peebles’ only studio picture as a director, 1970’s “Watermelon Man” made for Columbia Pictures, in which Godfrey Cambridge played a white racist who wakes up one day to discover he has become Black.

Other works by Van Peebles include the 1972 stage musical “Don’t Play Us Cheap,” which he also directed as a film and the 2008 movie “Confessions of a Ex-Doofus-Itchy Footed Mutha.” He wrote the screenplay for the 1995 film “Panther,” based on his own book and directed by his son Mario. A 2005 documentary on Melvin Van Peebles was titled “How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It.)”


Van Peebles is survived by his sons Mario and Max, daughter Marguerite and various grandchildren. His daughter Megan pre-deceased him.

A 1986 Times article describes Van Peebles’ newfound interest in trading on Wall Street, where he was said to be the first Black trader at the American Stock Exchange.

Asked to describe his life, Van Peebles smiled and shrugged: “I’m doing well, in the global sense. I’m very fortunate.

“Somebody once asked me, ‘Melvin, how’d you get to the top?’

“It was simple. Nobody would let me in at the bottom.”