So it's a surprise to find him at the helm of "BAADASSSSS!," a compelling account of his father's struggle to make a radical and socially conscious African-American movie. Though by no means radical itself, "BAADASSSSS!" is very much anti-establishment. It shows times have not changed all that much since Hollywood cold-shouldered Van Peebles' father, Melvin, for trying to make a picture that depicted black life as seen through the eyes of those who lived it.
His idea, completed in 1971 as "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," [see Rental Unit, pg. 40] turned out to be as successful as it was provocative. About a black man who goes after Whitey with a vengeance, it's credited as the first blaxploitation flick, part of the larger exploitation genre that came to be known as Quentin Tarantino's film library. The independently produced "Sweetback" preceded "Shaft" and all the jive-talking motion pictures that followed, though none quite carried its social statement.
To this day it's difficult to name more than a few mainstream films that have offered a realistic portrayal of black life in urban America. "Boyz in the Hood" and "Menace to Society" are always the first that come to mind. So do "Juice" and "New Jack City," but there isn't much further to dig.
At the beginning of the '70s, such movies were unthinkable. Melvin Van Peebles was one of only a few black directors, and, though the film doesn't reveal this, he was originally hired out of the French Cinema Center in Paris because his employers thought they'd happened on a new French auteur. They had no idea he was black. Upon his arrival in Hollywood he was immediately put to work making the racial farce "Watermelon Man."
"BAADASSSSS!" starts here. It has the same choppy style of the original, and an imaginatively conceived first act that recalls the fanciful work of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. Playing his father, Van Peebles directs himself through a dreamlike introduction to life in Hollywood at the tail end of the civil rights movement. Blacks and other nonwhite races had long been limited by the industry to embarrassing roles (think "Amos and Andy" and Tonto from "The Lone Ranger").
As the father struggles to write a "serious" follow up to "Watermelon Man," we're bombarded with rapid-fire images of oppression and upheaval pulled from archival film and television footage, coupled with fake documentary-style interviews and the interior monologue of Melvin's contemplative struggle to, as he puts it, "film all the faces Norman Rockwell never painted." The style is effective, and Van Peebles does a nimble job of keeping the mood light while immersing us in an agitated time and the restless mind of a black filmmaker confined in a safety zone by The Man.
As "BAADASSSSS!" progresses, events gradually become more linear and the film settles down to the rhythm of a typical biopic. Various characters, including a former porn producer eccentrically played by David Alan Grier, alternately provide comic relief and glimpses at the personal hardships it took to get "Sweetback" made. Portraying his father as a cigar-chomping, workaholic maverick (who almost lost sight in one eye during production), Van Peebles manages to refrain from displaying him in too favorable a light. Nor does he offer easy answers to the tough question faced by his father during filming, like whether to put his then 13-year-old son Mario in a nude sex scene.
The film has its problems, notable casting blunders and occasional reliance on the cliches of a mock documentary to move the story along. But it's an entertaining historical picture about a series of events not very well known to the general public. (It's especially neat to learn the project discovered the funk band Earth, Wind & Fire and was saved from bankruptcy by Bill Cosby.) Mario Van Peebles won't change the world with this film. But "BAADASSSSS!" is a worthy homage to his father's movie-making dreams. *** S"BAADASSSSS!" is tentatively scheduled to open at the Westhampton Theater Friday, July 16.
Letters to the editor may be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org