Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, produced, edited, composed and starred in this powerful and inflammatory attack on White America. After the body of a black man is discovered, Sweetback helps two white 'acquaintances' in the police force to look good by agreeing to go with them to the station as a suspect. But he is forced to go on the run after brutally attacking the two policemen when they arrest and beat up a young black man. Written by
David Claydon <email@example.com>
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is a film whose reputation is based almost entirely on its historical importance. When I finally saw it after hearing a lot about it for many years, I was somewhat alarmed at just how amateurish it in actual fact was. This isn't a problem in and of itself but it was a bit surprising how raw it was given its fame and reputation. Director and star Melvin Van Peebles was nothing if not a visionary though, as this was the first film to tap into the African American audience in quite this way. He created a new type of black hero; one that was aggressive and sexually threatening. And one that we are in no doubt is at odds with white authority. Unsurprisingly, this film was made way outside of the mainstream but it turned a pretty big profit from its small budget. As is always the way, other film-makers took note including Hollywood and a plethora of exploitation movies were made aimed squarely at this significant African American audience. And with that the Blaxploitation sub-genre was born.
The basic story-line is really simple. A sex show performer called Sweetback kills a couple of cops who are beating up a fellow black man and then goes on the run through South Central L.A. on his way to the Mexican border. It's really the locations, people and authenticity that make it interesting though. The run down sections of L.A. in particular are great time-capsule stuff and give us a peek into a time and place where the streets really did look mean. Overall, the film is an interesting look at the black experience in the early 70's ghettos. It does give out its message pretty clearly about the repression of the black man in a white controlled culture. Its defiant stance must've struck a chord with its audience, as Sweetback is never portrayed as the criminal it's the police who are regarded as such, so it subverts the whole crime genre in this way. While it may be right-on about race, it's not so enlightened about sexual politics however. The women in the film seem to only exist for Sweetback to have sex with, while the often reported fact that Van Peebles was really having sex on film in these scenes is just too sleazy for me.
This is definitely a landmark movie, though, there is no doubt about that. But I would have to label it important but not that good. The reason I score it fairly high though is that, despite its many film-making short-comings it does have a relentless energy and the rawness of the production does in fact work in its favour at least to some extent. The crazed montage heavy editing keeps up the intensity and is even pretty experimental in approach a lot of the time, while the grimy locations and unusual characters possess an authenticity that serves it well. And underscoring it is a soundtrack of urgent urban funk that sets the scene extremely well. This latter factor was often the best thing about some of the later Blaxploitation movies in actual fact and remains one of the things that best defines them today. So, in summary, while this film isn't very good in a number of ways, it has enough attitude about it to raise it several rungs.
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