Amid the funky afros, cigar-chomping and booty-grooving beats, here is one hell of an entertaining film about cinema, fathers, obsession, Hollywood and racism.
It’s 1971, and flares, ‘fros and spliffs are de rigueur. While The French Connection was filling movie houses, Melvin Van Peebles, a young black filmmaker, was out scraping together studio support for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The film -“ about a black man called Sweetback who became a revolutionary on the run after shooting two white cops who were beating up a brother -“ starred and was directed by Van Peebles.
When Van Peebles was knocked back by all the studios -“ including Columbia where he had a three-picture deal -“ he raised the money and made the film independently with a multi-racial crew. So dawned the modern era of black cinema in the US, with films made by black filmmakers for black audiences and with blacks as heroes, not servants.
Baadasssss! is the making of story and -“ with history repeating itself -“ it stars and is directed by Melvin Van Peebles’s son.
Using his father’s book about the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Mario Van Peebles delivers more than a tribute to his father’s filmmaking adventure. He paints a concise history of Hollywood’s racist treatment of African-Americans -“ on and off screen. Part-doco, part-feature, the film strings together a sizable catalogue of archival footage of black Americans in fawning, tap dancing, Uncle Tom roles in old Hollywood flicks.
Mario also treads the difficult terrain of making a film about his father and dishes up a rough-around-the-edges portrait. Melvin Van Peebles scrubs up as no easy man -“ driven, egocentric and obsessive to the detriment of himself and those around him.
Melvin Van Peebles makes a brief on-screen appearance, along with Bill Cosby (see the film and you’ll understand why). Indeed, Baadasssss! features a solid cast that includes the late Ossie Davis, a revered black American actor who read the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral. There’s love and politics aplenty in this picture, but plenty of pain too.
Baadasssss! is loveable not simply for its funky edge. Sure, Mario Van Peebles’s hip filmmaking oozes charm. On screen, he is magnetic and sexy, while behind the camera he gives a stylistic nod to the early 1970s independent blaxploitation films his father pioneered in 1971. Emulating the techniques of a hip-hop DJ, Van Peebles mixes music and dialogue with some snappy narration and delivers a story that is effortlessly crowd-pleasing.
Baadasssss! captivated audiences at last year’s Sydney Film Festival. You’ll be barracking 110 percent for the entire crew to get this film finished even when the money is running out and only one cinema will risk screening an all-black film. Amazingly enough, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is still on Variety‘s list of all-time top grossing films.