Many film critics and historians have called Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song the first blaxploitation film. I slightly agree and disagree with that assertion. The subsequent so-called blaxploitation films were for the most part directed by whites in Hollywood after they realized the monetary success of SSBS. The film was unexpectedly a huge financial success and the businessmen in Hollywood took notice. Although only budgeted at $50,000.00 (most of the money coming from people in the black entertainment community), SSBS grossed over $15 million dollars ( Merritt 218). SSBS would change the way the Hollywood film industry looked at the American black community and film audiences there on out. Hollywood knew that they could cash in.
Novice filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles starred, wrote, produced, directed, composed, and edited Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. I think it is safe to say that SSBS is an auteur piece. Van Peebles had only directed two films before the successful SSBS. His first feature length film was a 1967 adaptation of his novel The Story of a Three Day Pass (Merritt 216). Extremely controversial for its time, the film was a romance about a black American soldier who falls in love with a white French girl (which was filmed in France). Melvin Van Peebles second feature was produced by Columbia pictures in Hollywood. Watermelon Man (1970) is a race comedy about a white racist who unexpectedly wakes up to find himself black. Although both of Van Peebles first two features were controversial and possibly offensive to white audiences during their releases, neither films came close to the powerful cinematic assault of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Black Panther leader Huey Newton even called SSBS “a great revolutionary document (Merritt 218).”
Mel Gussow of the New York Times stated of Melvin Van Peebles and the success of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, “The first black man in show business to beat the white man at his own game (Van Peebles 7).” Gussow’s bold statement resonates quite true. Melvin Van Peebles succeeded in creating a low budget film that had a better return than most big budget Hollywood studio system films of that time period. SSBS’s is also an unconventional (especially at the time of its release) film that questions the calculated “aesthetics” of Hollywood. Like other unconventional filmmakers of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, SSBS takes a different angle in constructing a cinematic work. Low budget auteur directors Paul Morrissey (the Flesh trilogy), John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living), and even Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) also paved the way for future subversive directors.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was shot on 16mm resulting in an aesthetically gritty film that compliments its controversial content. For the most part, SSBS uses non actors and other individuals that weren’t part of Hollywood unions (Van Peebles 73). Melvin Van Peebles also told Hollywood unions that he was making a black porno film so that they would have nothing to do with it (Van Peebles 73). By casting non actors, Van Peebles was able to capture a certain realism that Hollywood has never been capable of capturing. The aesthetic realism of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song echoes back to the days of Italian Neo-Realist such as Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thief), Pier Paolo Pasolini (Accattone, Mama Roma), and Roberto Rossellini (Open City, Germany Year Zero). Like the Italian Neo-Realist directors before him, Melvin Van Peebles was able to create a film that captures the true essence of the proletarian and his natural environment.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is also a film that appealed to more than just the black American film audience. The film features a variety of acid washed color shots that would appeal to the hippie drug crowd. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which features similar acid color sequences near the film’s conclusion) also appealed to the hippie audience and utilized the obvious drug advertising line, “the ultimate trip.” Furthermore, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song features a soundtrack by Earth, Wind & Fire, a group popular among both blacks and white hippies. White hippies were generally more accepting of radical ideals and revolutionary movements. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was a film that the hippie movement could appreciate.
Due to the film’s fairly low budget and for the most part inexperienced crew, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song has its fair share of cinematic and aesthetic blemishes. A good number of the night sequences are fairly underexposed and somewhat visually confusing. At the same time many of these sequences emphasize the character and action in the scene. This is especially true when Sweetback kills two cops who have just assaulted a black revolutionary. The character and action are emphasized in a way that forces the viewer to focus on the action. This scene almost has a supernatural feel as Sweetback kills the police officers with their own handcuffs. Unintentional blemishes can sometimes work to a films advantage. French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard made no lie of his accidental blessing during the editing of Breathless, resulting in the ever so popular jump cut.
A good portion of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song involved Sweetback running through various terrains from the cops. Throughout these often occurring sequences, the Neo-Jazz soundtrack accents Sweetback’s run from oppression. These sequences predate the MTV music video and have a very fluid power. Film critics and historians have compared these sequences to the hymn of pain and transcendence that were firmly part of the tradition of African-American songs and literature (Merritt 217-218). Melvin Van Peebles stated of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, “The message of Sweetback is that if you can get it together and stand up to the Man, you can win.” During the conclusion of SSBS, Sweetback escapes the white cops and crosses the border to Mexico. Although Sweetback isn’t much of a role model for the black community (as he is a murderer, hustler, and womanizer), it was important to have a film where a black man actually stood up to the notoriously ruthless “man.”
Another controversial sequence in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is when young Sweetback, taking place during the American depression era (played by Melvin Van Peebles son Mario), has simulated sex with a full grown woman. The pre-teen Mario is completely nude as is his much more mature first sexual partner. During sexual intercourse, the woman screams that young sweetback has a “sweetback.” Hence, the reason why the protagonist is called Sweetback. Had this film been released today, it would have been called “child pornography.” This scene is crucial however as it affirms to the audience Sweetback’s sexual powers. Throughout Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song you see how Sweetback sexually dominates every woman that he comes in contact with. It is no doubt that one of Sweetback’s biggest appeals is high performance hustler sexual persona.
Another interesting element of Sweetback’s aesthetic appeal is his hustler outfit. His complete wardrobe looks like someone took the outfit out of an early Western and stylized if for a cooler than cool black hero. Like the ideal Western hero (or antihero), Sweetback is a stoic lone man that speaks little and acts with a purpose. The women love him and the men fear him. White cops will do anything to stop him as they see him as a serious threat (and as a cop killer). Had Sweetback worn generic clothing, his appeal would have been much less powerful. He is an enigma and is often one of few clues (besides his actions) that let the viewer know who Sweetback really is.
One of the most crucial aspects of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the setting of the film. Melvin Van Peebles made sure to film SSBS in an urban black area to capture a realistic view of Sweetback and his community. The cast of the film is credited as “starring the black community.” Like casting non actors, real urban settings work the same way atmospherically as the Italian Neo-Realist films did. You get an authentic feel of the streets. I couldn’t imagine Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song being filmed in a studio with generic gritty streets and nice new exploding cars. The fact that Melvin Van Peebles worked with such a low budget only added to the film. When a filmmaker lacks funds, they have to think more inventively and creatively. Mr. Van Peebles thoughtfully had his mind set on the proper settings for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
Melvin Van Peebles’s son Mario recently directed a biographical film on the making of Sweetback titled appropriately Baadasssss! (2003). The film is an enlightening and very entertaining look at the problems Melvin Van Peebles (starring son Mario) encountered before and after the production of SSBS. The film is based on the book by Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: A Guerilla Filmmaking Manifesto. Like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Baadasssss! features a variety of political and controversial circumstances surrounding the early 1970’s. I feel that Baadasssss! is the perfect companion piece to SSBS and an excellent update for new generations. Baadasssss! is a testament to the power of one man and his crusade to break crucial grounds both in a cinematic and socio-political manner.
Revolutionary and Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton stated, “On many levels Van Peebles is attempting to communicate some crucial ideas, and motivate us to a deeper understanding and then action based upon that understanding (in reference to SSBS).” Although I wouldn’t agree with all of Sweetback’s methods (some being counterproductive), Huey P. Newton is right in his assertion. Newton went on to say, “He has certainly made effective use of one of the most popular forms of communication-the movie-and he is dealing in revolutionary terms (Van Peebles 5).” Mr. Newton no doubt understands the crucial power and impact of the film medium. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is one of the most powerful films to ever grace the screen of the movie theater. The film’s crude and gritty aesthetic gave the viewer a powerful message in a realistic context. Not many American films can say the same thing.