In 1970, Melvin Van Peebles—along with Gordon Parks and Ossie Davis, one of the first African-American filmmakers to find work in Hollywood—directed a moderately successful serio-comedy entitled Watermelon Man , about a white bigot who suddenly finds himself in the body of a black man. With the $70,000 he earned from that film, plus additional funds from a number of independent sources, Van Peebles was able to finance his new project, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song —so named in order to solicit at least a modicum of coverage from the mainstream media.
On the one hand, Sweetback is a film so original in both conception and realization that it managed to defy all traditional genre expectations, thereby satisfying the desire (at least temporarily) for a popular alternative to the dominant Hollywood paradigm. On the other hand, Sweetback is a film that borrows narrative threads and conventions from an assortment of different genres (including the chase film, the biker film, and soft-core porno), thereby proving itself a forerunner of those “postmodern” hybrids so prevalent in theaters today. Finally, Sweetback is a film whose staggering and completely unexpected commercial success ensured its place at the head of an explosion in black-marketed, black-cast, and/or black-directed productions, an explosion that soon went by the ambivalent name of “Blaxploitation cinema.”
Sweetback makes manifest its revolutionary pretensions with the following words, which appear at the bottom of the screen before the opening credits role: “This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man.” The shocking first scene finds a pre-teen Sweetback (played by Melvin’s son, Mario Van Peebles) working in a whorehouse, where a grateful call-girl screams out his nickname during orgasm. Though some viewers found symbolic beauty here (Black Panther leader Huey Newton went so far as to claim that the woman “in fact baptizes [Sweetback] into his true manhood”), others in the African-American community, such as Ebony reviewer Lerone Bennett, Jr., felt that Sweetback’s initiation is not so much an “act of love” as “the rape of a child by a 40-year-old prostitute. The film concludes on an ominous note for white audiences, as the words “A Baadasssss nigger is coming to collect some dues” flash across the screen.
Although neither the popularity of Sweetback at the time of its release, nor its influence on future black filmmakers, can possibly be denied, its legacy—as well as that of Blaxploitation cinema generally— remains a matter of controversy to this day. In interviews, as well as in the promotional book accompanying its theatrical release, Van Peebles called the film “revolutionary,” as it tells the story of a “bad nigger” who mounts a successful challenge against the oppressive white power system. This view was supported by Newton, who devoted an entire issue of the Black Panther party newspaper to Sweetback. Bill Cosby has reportedly called the film a work of genius. And a number of African-American intellectuals sought to add Sweetback’s name to the roll call of black folkloric heroes in virtue of his prodigious virility.
Unfortunately, what tends to get lost in the heated debates surrounding Sweetback ‘s socio-political “message” is an acknowledgment and consideration of Van Peeble’s innovative directorial style. By making creative use of such techniques as montage, superimposition, freeze frames, jump cuts, zoom-ins, split-screen editing, stylized dialogue, multiply-exposed scenes, and a soulful musical score by the black rock group Earth Wind and Fire, Van Peebles broke new ground and challenged viewers’ expectations. All of this should make obvious the point that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is not just a statement, protest, or historical oddity, but a unique cinematic experience for people of all colors to reflect upon, appreciate, and enjoy.
by Steven Schneider