Melvin Van Peebles stunned the world for the first time, with his debut feature, The Story of a Three Day Pass. Filmed in France and selected as the French entry in the San Francisco Film Festival, Melvin's film was awarded the top prize. Saying it was controversial would be an understatement. In 1968 for a black man to walk up to the podium and accept the top festival award for a film he had to go abroad to make--now that's how you make your mark. After his comedy, Watermelon Man, Melvin was determined to push the Hollywood boundaries with the groundbreaking, and even more controversial, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Turned down by every major studio including Columbia, where he had a three-picture deal, Melvin was forced to basically self-finance. Risking everything he had Melvin delivered to the world the first Black Ghetto hero on the big screen--whether they were ready or not! More than 30 years later, history is being fashioned again in the telling of this very tale. Mario ... Written by
Sujit R. Varma
While making "Sweet Sweetback", Melvin Van Peebles makes a reference to TV's "Soul Train", a show that would not be introduced into nationally syndication for another year. See more »
Melvin Van Peebles:
Is this something negative, Priscilla? Because if it's negative, I can't even deal with it right now. I'm a broke, pissed off nigger from Chicago, and I'm down to my last cigar.
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Dedicated to all the brothers & sisters who opened the door... See more »
Gettin' the Man's Foot outta Your Baadasssss!
Lyrics by Mario Van Peebles
Performed by Jameel Hassan
Black Panther Records Publishing
Music by Black Panther Records and the Huey P. Newton Foundation See more »
There have been many movies, usually bittersweet comedies, about movie-making with the director as the put-upon ringmaster of eccentrics, like Truffaut's "Day for Night" or "Living in Oblivion," or bio-pics that show the director as eccentric visionary, like "Ed Wood" or "Matinee."
But I think "Baadasssss!" is one of very few to show the filmmaker as a driven artist, more comparable to the intense look at a ground-breaking creator like "Pollock."
Writer/director/producer Mario Van Peebles eerily reenacts how his father Melvin wrote/directed/produced the seminal "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song," one of the first indie movies that also virtually created the potent blaxpoitation genre and guerrilla moviemaking; I thought I had seen it back in '71, but as soon as this film started I realized my memory was, embarrassingly, confusing it with Robert Downey Sr.'s "Putney Swope," so now I do need to see the original.
The production design, including costumes and hair styles, exquisitely recreates the era, but the editing and cinematography suck us even further into Melvin's head as he incisively surveys the state of the image of blacks in movies up to that time and story boards his response.
Melvin's obsession to create and complete the film according to his vision and on his terms threatens his health and his personal and business relationships, but we are caught up in his whirlwind and root for him no matter how ruthless and prickly he becomes as the odds get ever longer and more frustrating and he refuses to compromise, taking offense at lame, well-meaning suggestions, for example, that he might get further if he would at least smile. But he everywhere, rightly or overly sensitively, only sees racism and condescension, including when he has to part layers of irony to beg Bill Cosby for help.
Recalling the spirit of Werner Herzog's documentary "My Best Fiend" about his tortured collaboration with Klaus Kinski to portray obsessives in "Fitzcarraldo" and "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," Mario adds layers of Freudian issues as this filial tribute unflinchingly includes the father's treatment of the son on set and off in the original film and unsparingly brings to life everyone around them.
Mario effectively borrows other bio-pic techniques, such as the camera-facing interviewees in "Reds," first by their portrayers, then, next to the closing credits, the real people, concluding with a loving portrait of his father.
Contrary to the original film, which boosted the careers of the fledging Earth, Wind, and Fire, the soundtrack instrumentation here is surprisingly traditional and sentimental.
The Portrait of the Artist can rarely be a Portrait of a Nice Guy and "Baadasssss!" beautifully and honestly shows why.
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