A film review by Craig J. Koban




2004, R, 108 mins.

Melvin Van Peebles: Mario Van Peeples / Priscilla: Joy Bryant / Bill Cosby: T.K. Carter / Big T: Terry Crews / Mario Van Peebles: Khleo Thomas / Granddad: Ossie Davis / Clyde Houston: David Allen Grier / Sandra: Nia Long / Jose Garcia: Paul Rodriguez / Howie: Saul Rubinek

Directed by Mario Van Peeples / Written by Van Peebles and Dennis Haggerty /  Based on the book Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song by Melvin Van Peebles

To look at the true roots of Black Cinema in North America one needs to stand back and look at the social and political climate of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  The political environment of this time would prove to be an integral force in shaping African cinema.  If you were to look at African Americans in cinema of the late 60’s you’d bare witness to characters that wanted acceptance and recognition.  They did not want to be seen as different in anyway, but just as a normal part of society as a whole.  The movies of the this time were indicative of this principal, such as IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, where Sidney Poitier is portrayed as a noble and intelligent black man that tries to be “clean,” do the right thing, and be morally good.  In essence, he had to be three times more qualified than normal to be taken seriously.  

This mentality would soon change, as the contemporary social forces of the day were changing.  Cynicism grew, especially within the Vietnam War and even more with the assassination of Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  Black communities, with these two men, were given distinct polar opposites for fighting racial suppression and bigotry.  King was for peaceful protest, whereas X was more militant with an “any means necessary" approach.  Once the 60’s gave way to the 70’s, and after the death of these two leaders and the Civil Rights movement peaked, African Americans were beginning to become alive and started to speak in their own unique voices.  They no longer wanted to be on par with the norm; they wanted to be seen as a unique culture.  Movies continued to celebrate black culture, but they definitely lacked the energy, nihilism and cynicism that many blacks felt epitomized their place in society.  The problem faced with black cinema was how to change they same stale images of blacks in films to something that was more urban, gritty, and most importantly, real. 

Melvin Van Peeples was the answer, and his 1971 revolutionary film SWEET SWEETBACK’S  BAAD ASSSSS SONG gave rise to a new type of black cinema, one that inspired a generation of new black filmmakers, from Spike Lee, to John Singleton, to even Peeples’ own son, Mario. 

SWEET SWEETBACK has often been incorrectly labeled  by many film historians as the first blaxploitation picture, which is not altogether true (COTTON COMES TO HARLEM was released a year earlier in 1970), but it was the first blaxploitation film to gain a gigantic following by filmgoers everywhere.  It may not have been the first blaxploitation picture, but it was one of the first serious and most seen black films that gave a sort of cathartic authenticity to the black experience.  It was a film that was not “phony,” but one that was down to earth, violent, and had great verisimilitude. 

Peeples’ film cost nothing by modern day figures, but it went on to gross an astounding $15 million in its initial run (amazing, considering that it only premiered in two cinemas in the US).  It was truly the first blaxploitation film to be seen by blacks on a massive scale.  It was not only popular, but it helped pave the way for the enormous success of a genre that saved major studios.  Before SWEET SWEETBACK many studios were making enormous big budget flops.  After that, smaller independent films, spawned by the success of SWEET SWEETBACK, helped the studios get out of the black.   

SWEET SWEETBACK was not only important in the annals of film history because of its success and influence, but also because of the kind of film it was: a “ghetto western”, one that no studio in the world wanted to touch.  It was made with a 50 per cent “third world crew” of minorities, and in the day and age of unions in movies, this approach was unheard of.  Since most unions were white, the makers of the film had to disguise the film as a black porno to fly below the powerful and ever-watchful eye of the unions.  The film also broke cinematic laws and created some new ones in the process.  It was shot simply, quickly, and cheaply, with a low budget and a small number of hand held 16mm cameras.  It also established the specifics and conventions of the blaxploitation genre that gave way to the films of Pam Grier and other pictures like SUPERFLY and SHAFT.  SWEET SWEETBACK showed us crocked white cops as the villains and the black man (and rallying community behind him) as the protagonists.  Even more important, the black lead not only survived at the end of the film, but also prospered. 

Surely, later blaxploitation films where less volatile with their content and more mass marketed entertainments, but the genius and importance of Peeples’ film is that it  represented a new beginning for American cinema and culture.  If Muhammad Ali was the first black power athlete, then Melvin Van Peeples was, most assuredly, the first black power director and player in films.  Mario Van Peeples' (Melvin’s son) BAADASSSS!, one of the truly best films of 2004, is the story of the making of SWEET SWEETBACK and its importance as a turning point in American cinema. 

BAADASSSSS! is the ultimate déjà vu film.  It’s a story, as told through the eyes of Mario Van Peeples, about his memories of his father (Melvin) making SWEET SWEETBACK.  But not only that, the film is written, produced, directed, starred in by Mario (he plays his own father), he has his own children playing small character parts, and he directs another child actor who is playing himself as a child.  BAADASSSSS! is also filmed with a largely minority crew to give it the same feel as what it must have been like to make the 1971 film. 

Based on his father’s book,  Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song : A Guerrilla Filmmaking Manifesto, Baadasssss!, Mario Van Peeples’ BAADASSSSS! details how Melvin is trying to decide what to do next with his career in the early 70’s.  After the success of his WATERMELON MEN, Melvin strikes a vision for a bold revolutionary film about a ghetto black man hero who fights corrupt police figures that are trying to set him up.  Of course, his studio partner, played by Saul Rubinek, wants nothing to do with this film.  “Make a funny comedy that people want to see,” he tells Melvin.  Melvin, of course, becomes slowly obsessed with the idea for his film, and quickly gets out of his three-picture deal with the studio and dreams up an idea to independently finance his “baby”. 

Absolutely convinced that he has to make his film, Melvin goes and takes his idea to his hippie friend Bill Harris (played very humorously by Rainn Wilson) and finds the necessary funding from a stoned-out rich guy.  With financing in place,  pre-production completed, and scouting secured, Melvin begins his film.  One problem: the source of the financing got himself arrested, thus taking away the money needed for the film.  Melvin, never the quitter, decides to fund the film himself.  He also manages to convince others of the possibility of the film’s success, and in one desperate moment, is even able to get $50,000 in additional funding from Bill Cosby (T.K. Carter). 

His crew is a mixed bag of minorities, from cameraman Jose (Paul Rodriguez) to soundman Big T (Terry Crews).  Unfortunately from there, all sorts of problems begin to emerge.  At one point, the minority crew is arrested and thrown in jail for the weekend, as the officers would not believe that these men could have afforded all of the film equipment that was in their truck.  At another point, the lead actress quits, as her boyfriend does not want her to be in scenes of an overt sexual nature.  Melvin himself, overworked to the point of breakdown, has his vision in one eye diminish and suffers physical and mental fatigue.  In fact, even when the film is completed, no major studio wants to distribute and show it.  To make matters all-the-more worse, the film earns an X-rating (by an “all-white jury”, Peeples explains), which precludes that it will never be advertised in mainstream newspapers.  In the end, as a final nail in the coffin, the film is only released in two cinemas, both as a part of a bad triple feature. 

Yet, with all of the amazing obstacles in the film’s place, it eventually became a hit and a cultural phenomenon, becoming the highest grossing independent film of 1971.  It is for these reasons that makes BAADASSSSS! such a terrifically involving and transfixing entertainment.  It’s a classic underdog story in the sense of displaying how far a man will go, with a distinct vision and dream, to make all his desires become a reality.  In a way, much like Tim Burton’s ED WOOD and the great documentary HEART OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE, Peeples’ film works on a level of a compelling story of overcoming hurdles and maintaining your blind faith through something to its completion.  It’s also about working outside the system and how that can lead to a whole other set of major dilemmas.  As Peeples said in an interview, BAADASSSSS! deals with two monsters of filmmaking – triumph and disaster – and how one must treat those two entities with an equal footing.  Sure, Melvin can be a cold-hearted bastard in the journey towards making the film, but who said that squeaky-clean artists make for great biopics?   

BAADASSSSS! is not just about a man making a movie.  It's much more multi-faceted than that.  Peeples’ film works on two distinct levels.  It’s primarily about a man trying to make a film, but it is also a story about a father and a son.  It's kind of a stroke of casting inventiveness to have Mario play his own father in the film, but he also has young Khelo Thomas play himself as a 13-year-old.  So, in essence, Mario is directed himself playing his dad and directing another actor to play his adolescent self (paging Dr. Fraud?).  

However, this is not a sanitized and clean look at his own relationship with his father.  Mario the writer and director shows the often troubled relationship through his eyes as a teenager, and it’s abundantly clear that Melvin directs much of his anger and frustration towards his son.  In one if the more chilling recounts, BAADASSSSS! shows Melvin forcing his son to play Sweetback as a kid losing his virginity at a brothel.  This is made more embarrassing and spiteful in hindsight, seeing as the constant yearnings of the crew express their disliking of  Melvin doing this to his son.  Yet, Melvin is a force of nature in the film, a cigar-smoking general of sorts, and SWEET SWEETBACK is a guerrilla film if there ever was one.  No matter what, Melvin always got his way. 

Mario Van Peeples is really extraordinary playing his father and, ironically, it's one of his very best performances.  It must have been an especially tricky and awkward role for him, but he pulls it off with such vigor and determination.  You get the sense, through the performance, that he both has incredible respect and resentment for the man - respect in the sense that his father was a man of an incomparable work ethic and a zeal to make films his own way; resentment in the sense that he was also pig-headed, single-minded, and stubborn, and often verbally and physically abused his crew.  But this is what makes this film a milestone work for Peeples in how his keen way of being objective to the point of bringing back old wounds.  This is one of the most personal films I have ever seen, and Mario’s amalgamation of his own recollections with those of his father in his book makes for a really surreal first-hand look at the filmmaking process.  BAADASSSSS! is required viewing for anyone interested in the back stage politics of filmmaking. 

Mario Van Peeples has been a hit-or-miss actor and director (he made the underrated NEW JACK CITY and the so-so POSSE and PANTHER), but with BAADASSSSS! he has finally emerged as a great and bold voice in American films.  SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAAD ASSSSS SONG may have been a landmark film for paving the way for black cinema, but BAADASSSSS!  is also a real find and a great film on it’s own levels.  It’s one the very finest films about making films that I have seen and Peeples, as writer, director, and actor, hits every beat.  He manages to completely capture the sense of period and time of the turbulent 1970’s, but he also fixates on the sort of strange, elusory sense of family that permeated the production of SWEET SWEETBACK.  BAADASSSSS! is a powerful watershed film for Peeples, and an important one in the sense that it gives weight and significance to small film that went on to be hugely influential.  BAADASSSSS! is not a sensitive portrait of an artist; it’s a daring, bold, insightful, and pull-no-punches look at a man of determination, commitment, energy, and drive, and one who would step on anyone (even his own son) to get what he wanted. 

BAADASSSSS! is one of 2004's best and most criminally overlooked gems.

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