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Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song has a lot of historical significance. It is an early independent film in what's considered the current "modern" style, it is one of the earliest mostly black films of its era (there were all black films earlier, such as Oscar Micheaux's work, but they disappeared for awhile), it was controversial (it initially earned an X rating (later changed to an R) and touted that fact proudly as a tagline), it was made for $150 thousand but grossed $15 million, and most importantly perhaps for some film lovers, it is credited with starting the blaxploitation craze in the 1970s. It is worth watching for students of film on those merits alone.
But none of those facts alone make it a good film, and none affect my rating. In terms of quality, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song gets my vaunted 5 out of 10 rating, which is usually reserved for "so bad they're good" films. Although it is loaded with flaws, as one might expect from a low budget film from the era shot guerilla-style on the streets of Los Angeles, it is a hoot to watch. On the weirdness scale, it definitely earns a 10.
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is firmly mired in the psychedelic era. Peebles gives us frequent shots with negative or false colors near the beginning of the film. More frequently, he directs scenes so they have various "altered reality" allusions--time stretching, repeating, stopping and stuttering, bizarre actions and reactions from various characters, rambling nonsense, and so on--which for the viewer approximate the perception of someone who is wasted almost to the point of passing out. These scenes often play like some kind of avant-garde performance art, and are as much a focus of the film as any of the usually cited "political" messages rooted in racially oriented turmoil and disparity. Perhaps the intended theme was that race relations, and the urban reality of blacks to that point were as bizarre as acid trips, some good, some bad.
The music is equally bizarre (which I love), with a recurrent jazz/funk piece with an almost atonal saxophone melody being the unifier. Some of the vocal music is a veritable Greek chorus, narrating action and emotions, providing critiques and so on. Peebles also frequently layers musical tracks, so two or more can be playing at once for a minute or two.
The film is also notable and admirable for its abundance of almost graphic sex scenes and gratuitous nudity. The opening scene is particularly groundbreaking and laudable. Throughout the film, Sweetback is an unstoppable stud, with almost any woman he desires dropping her drawers for him, even towards the end of the film, despite the fact that he has an oozing, infected sore running up the side of his body, not to mention that he's filthy, and he's been drinking mud and eating raw lizards. The ladies still find him hot enough to give him a poke in the bushes. We need much more of this kind of material in contemporary films.
At one point, Peebles and/or director of photography Robert Maxwell appear to have hit the streets of Los Angeles, filming people at random after they asked them if they've seen Sweetback (the character). These shots are inserted into the extended chase scene near the end of the film (2/3 to 3/4 of the film is actually an extended chase scene). The effect is a lot of fun to watch--definitely guerilla film-making at its finest.
But the problems with the film are legion. Maxwell's camera frequently goes in and out of focus (being generous, we could interpret it with psychedelic intent, but I'm skeptical). Night scenes (which are thankfully avoided for the most part) tend to be seas of blackness where a viewer can only occasionally make out enough of an image to piece together the scene in their mind. The sound is awful--I couldn't make out about half of the dialogue (at one point I thought "this is more like watching a silent film"), and it doesn't help that some characters "jive talk"; if ever a film needed subtitles, it's this one. The camera occasionally has a spot, a hair, or some other gunk on the lens. There isn't much to the story; after awhile, it starts to play more like an odd music video. A lot of shots--scenery, cityscapes, etc.--look like they may have been randomly taken by Peebles with his home camera with the hopes of one day using them in a film.
Still, for fans of weirdness and "so bad they're good" films, not to mention any blaxploitation fan with his or her weight in barbecued ribs, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is a must see. Make sure you also check out How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass (aka Baadasssss!), Peebles' son Mario's 2003 film about Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
Von Peebles is to be commended for doing the impossible and i have used his example of forbearance and excellance for the past three decades. He had been in Europe for ten years prior to the film. He wanted to do the film. He didn't have the money. No one wanted to write it. He wrote it. Black actors of stature didn't want to be associated with it. He stars in it. He gets the financial backing. He gets an "X" rating because he would not have it submitted for a rating and because the only venue he could get was the "X" rated theatres. He still out grossed Easy Rider, which was the big history maker of low budget big return films.
Von Peebles was the first black man to tell it like it was at the time... and he blasted the black myths on and off the screen.
Thankfully, the mood of the film is positive enough that its deliriously illogical plot actually works in its favour. Greasy kid Mario van Peebles (minus the "van" here) is transformed into strapping man Melvin van Peebles in a meaningful encounter with a hooker, and you can buy it. On-the-lam hero Sweetback is challenged to a duel by bikers, and nobody so much as blinks when he suggests that it should be a duel of sexual prowess... hell, they don't even seem to care that he doesn't need to move in order to drive his women wild. He's even brought back from the dead by the chorused voices of The Black Community, and it all sort of makes sense, kind of.
In fact, it isn't until the very last shot of the movie, when you realize that 90 minutes and change have built up to... well, nothing much, really, except maybe a shred of belief in the power of an act of will, and perhaps the promise of a sequel, that you feel like taking the movie to task for its gaping technical flaws again. Even then, it's made so earnestly that I don't really have the heart to slag it for its ineptly-blocked camerawork and dreadful acting. I've seen much worse from filmmakers who weren't trying to change the world by giving a damn, so instead I'll talk it up by calling it the spiritual ancestor of the basketball-teleportation ending to He Got Game, and pretty much everything in The Matrix, too. That it was largely the work of one hugely inspired guy makes it all the cooler, so struggling filmmakers, take note! As long as you crib your technique from other places, Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song should be an inspiration to you.
Mr. Van Peebles used a lot of French new wave style of film making when he shot this movie. The many unique editing and camera angles can be found scattered throughout the movie. He also composed the brilliant soundtrack which also comes across as a concept album. You can listen to the movie on record! This movie was more of a statement to the White Establishment. That a black man can make a unique film without the restraints of the studio system and not have to answer to investors and anxious producers.
I have to give a hand to Mr. Van Peebles. He never gave in to the studios and make terrible sell-out projects. Like him or loathe him, you have to give him all the kudos he deserves and then some.
Van Peebles created a unique experimental film that succeeds on its own terms. It is a classic for all time.
Maybe it's a good sign that viewing such films today lends itself more to camp fun than any possible serious interpretation; it is a sign that we have moved on, at least a little bit.
Let's talk about the cinematography...if you can even call it that. It's obvious that the cameraman tried to be adventurous and arty, but it ended up looking horrid. The film stock appeared to be, at best, 16mm and it was very, very grainy. The edits, it appears, were done by Ray Charles. I have never seen a more amateurish bit of camera-work--and I've reviewed over 8000 movies!
As for the acting...oh, the horror! Melvin Van Peebles says almost nothing and does almost nothing in the film--like it is a zombie film. Most people under anesthesia emote more than he did! The only thing close to acting that he seemed to do was have sex repeatedly--with very unattractive women. I assume most of his budget went to hire ugly prostitutes for these scenes. The rest of the actors were also horrible...but at least they were more animated and interesting that this writer/director/actor. He simply sleep-walked throughout the film.
Speaking of nude scenes, the film begins with a bit of child pornography. Mario Van Peebles, the way underage son of the director, engages in a very, very realistic sex act with a woman of about 30 years of age. They are both VERY naked and he appears to he having intercourse with her. How the film maker got away with this legally is beyond me. I assume Melvin was motivated by heroin or battery acid or a massive head injury which allowed him to make such an irresponsible scene.
As far as the plot goes, this could have been good...but wasn't. Plus, all too often, the plot was buried among sleaze. The first 10 minutes of the film consisted of having Melvin having sex in front of groups of people. You assume he's some sort of prostitute and he's about as far from Shaft (perhaps a bad choice) or Hammer or the other black heroes of the 70s as you can get. Eventually, the police arrest him and some other innocent man and start working the other guy over even though they know neither had anything to do with a crime--and the cops even admit this! They randomly picked a couple black men to beat up just to make the chief happy! But, while they are pummeling the other man, Melvin turns on them and beats the crap out of them. The rest of the film consists of the cops trying to catch him.
I am sure this was very satisfying for black audiences of the day, as they were probably very well acquainted with police brutality (a national sport up until the late 1960s) and Van Peebles was capitalizing on this resentment. But, with so many more competent blaxsploitation films out there, I suggest you try them first. In fact ANY other film of the genre is better than this film. In fact, ANY film is better than this one. In fact, staring as a toilet for 90 minutes is better...the film is that bad! Just because it's first doesn't mean it's best. It's horribly incompetent and looks like a film made by crack-heads. And, when you watch the director on the accompanying DVD extra, you assume this was the case.
I have to say that I can see how it opened up a new genre..the Blaxploitation films. Whoa! It's powerful from the opening when we read about people in the black community oppressed by 'THE MAN' to the end when Sweetback escapes safely to Mexico (after killing hound dogs)!
There is a lot of symbolism as well. Sweetback lapping water like a dog from the ground in the desert, having sex with an almost Amazon looking white woman till she has an orgasm and calls his name 'Sweetback', Sweetback. Then she helps save him.
One big question I was left with, A woman surrounded by a lot of children says she may have had a child once named Leroy. He was taken away by the state and she doesn't know what happened to him. Is Leroy, really Sweetback? After all the movie opens with a starving, mangy , dirty little boy (young Sweetback) wolfing down food in a brothel and watched by Prostitutes. They take him in and raise him. I take it as saying that the system fails black youth.
The abuse by the white police was appalling, espceially when it came to searching for Sweetback. We hear the white police use the N-word liberally, and Black life is worthless. You can feel the anger of the oppressed black community in the film.
The film may be considered rebellious but I think its a masterpiece. And obviously, Hollywood thought so because it started the era of Blaxploitation films.
Doesn't matter which one, really. Even if it was his mother it wouldn't be as tasteless as the fact that what we're looking at is a 13-year-old kid completely naked between the legs of some woman who is equally naked. I have no problem with sex scenes, of course. It just strikes me as weird to see a movie that literally shows a 13-year-old kid having sex and then the movie (Shocked! Shocked!!) gives itself a tagline like 'Rated X by an all white jury.' What the hell?
I'm reminded of a classic Saturday Night Live skit in which Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan go to a nightclub and viciously gang-hump every woman on the dance floor and then when the security guards drag them to the exit they're all screaming 'What??! What?!?! What??!??!' How do they imply that an all black jury might have rated a movie with a naked 13-year-old kid in it? PG-13?
That being said, the movie is basically about a lot of incompetent white cops constantly pursuing someone named Sweetback, who has enough connections on the streets to afford him a good deal of protection and, of course, who is generally too cool for spoken dialogue. We're brought into the dismal world of the inner cities, a plight for which the white man is endlessly blamed and, to whatever extent, this may be true, but for the most part this movie celebrates the condemnation of the white man for causing the black man to live such a terrible life, while at the same time celebrating the black man's inability or unwillingness to do anything about that life beyond blaming the white man for it.
It's a controversial theory that the black community is more interested in blaming white people for their lot in life than they are in doing something to better their situation, but this movie does absolutely nothing to refute it, which is also the case in a disturbing number of 'blaxploitation' movies. Blaxploitation itself, as a term, is wildly misleading. I suppose it means that black people are blaxploited by greedy white men, hence their dismal urban lifestyle, while white people are whitesploited by black people, hence their constant appearance as greedy, racist, and complete drooling morons in 'blaxploitation' films. Pam Grier must be rolling in her grave.
I've heard the editing described as quick to disorient the viewer, which is not the case at all. What you have here is obtrusive editing without reason, cuts simply for the sake of cutting. Like many 1970s blaxploitation films, the movie halts in its tracks half a dozen times or so to turn into a music video for a little while, but the rough and awkward editing does not disorient the viewer, it stops the movie completely because it is totally devoid of meaning. It takes your attention away from what is happening on screen and puts it into the weird colors and shapes dancing across the screen, which have nothing to do with whatever the meaning of the movie is. This is not how you infuse a deep meaning or directorial significance onto a cheesy sexy movie, this is how you make a feature length film when you don't have enough story or material to fill that much screen time. Sometimes lines of dialogue are literally played over more than once. The need for such things escapes me.
In the movie's defense, it is very good at capturing the urban atmosphere in which the story takes place. When you watch the movie, you are there on the streets with the characters, you just have a hard time trying to follow what they're doing, what they're talking about, who's chasing who and why a black man is dancing on a stool while some idiot white guy stands directly behind him, staring at his backside and laughing hysterically. Wow.
The street life is portrayed very effectively, you see how bad it is to live in these areas, but then you have to wonder about the suffering when you see scenes like the one where Sweetback is forced by a gang of hysterical bikers to endure the unending torture of making love to a white woman while they all sit around laughing. What the hell is going on here?
(spoilers) Maybe I just made the mistake of watching Dirty Pretty Things just before seeing this, so I came into this movie having just watched a movie that squeezes in the sex and violence because they are necessary elements of the massive plot, while this movie stretches out the sex scenes and throws in random bits of plot here and there just to fill out the rest of the screen time. There literally is a point in the movie where Sweetback is running from the cops through the desert, becomes so decimated that he kills and eats a lizard, and then when he reaches civilization he stops to have sex with a prostitute in the dirt and have a couple of white cops stop by to giggle at him.
And not only that, if you make it through the movie you are not rewarded with the delivery of some message or cinematic meaning, you are literally rewarded with a series of shots showing a couple of dead dogs floating in a river. This normally is a figure of speech, but this is some of the stupidest s**t I've ever seen.
Here's something to consider at one point in the movie the white cops chase and capture Sweetback, but wait! He turns out to be just some guy, not Sweetback at all! The guy gleefully explains that he was paid $5 by some guy to run from whoever chased him, and it just happened to be the police but hey! It's five DOLLARS! So the cops don't do a thing at all to this guy, even though he willfully evaded the police. I guess if you're paid to run then it's okay? The thing that really gets me is that white people are portrayed as so stupid and incompetent and endlessly idiotic in these movies, and yet at the same time they are the people who's power and influence black people simply cannot escape.
Given that, here's my question for you - Who do blaxploitation films really make look foolish in the end? Oh, and yes I realize that Pam Grier is alive and well. Thanks for reading all the way to the end of my review...
I have no moral objection to the film, but cannot get past the fact that it is utterly incoherent from start to finish. The plot is almost non-existent, and only about a third of the screen time has anything to do with the 'story' anyway. There are random scenes that have no apparent meaning or significance whatsoever.
It looks dreadful, as if the cameraman was on speed and crack at the same time. Beyond this, the night sequences (which make up a large percentage of the film) are so dark that you literally cannot see a thing. Alas, that may be just as well, as it goes some small way to detracting from the mind-blowingly poor 'acting'. Sweetback himself just pouts and minces about, and he's the best 'character' in there. The sound is awful, often with two songs (the same two songs on a continuous loop) literally playing on top of each other.
I really wanted to like this movie, and I still acknowledge it as a milestone in American culture and social history. As a side note, it was not the first blaxploitation film as is popularly believed - Cotton Comes to Harlem was a year earlier. That said, technically Sweetback isn't a blaxploitation film at all as it was financed and produced entirely by a black man. Moot point really, but worth mentioning.
In case my point has been lost, let me recapitulate. Sweet Sweetback has to be one of the very worst films I have ever seen in my life. As a piece of cinema, there is absolutely nothing redeeming about it whatsoever.
Approach this as a documentation of the shift in (black) American social consciousness as it related to popular culture of the late '60s and early '70s. Otherwise avoid it altogether, you'll thank me later.
I saw this years ago at a revival theatre. I had heard it was an excellent, graphic and powerful film about racism. For the record I'm a white guy. What I saw was a dull, stupid, plot less, badly done movie with inaudible dialogue and scenes constantly going in and out of focus. The film makes it clear that white men are all racist jerks and have no problem with killing black guys. And white women should just be used for sex. This attitude might have seemed revolutionary in 1971 but it comes across today as sexist, racist (against white people) and more than a little questionable. This film might actually have been disturbing if it had been better made. The acting was lousy and the technical aspects of the film were so bad that it's really hard to give an totally accurate judgment of it.
And the stupid tag line "Rated X by an all white jury" is ridiculous. Let's see...it opens with a young black kid (about 12) stripped down and forced to have sex with a woman. THAT alone should give it an X. And there's plenty of nudity, sexual acts and violence shown graphically. BTW it was lowered to an R in 1974.
After about 75 minutes of this I walked out of the theatre. I was just so bored and annoyed I couldn't stay till the end. A lousy, disjointed period piece. Skip it.
The truth is that SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAAD ASSSSS SONG, in spite of the good intentions of its message, is poorly made pornographic trash. At the opening of the film we see an under-aged Sweetback have sex with a fat prostitute- and when I say we see it, I mean we SEE it. Not too much time goes by before we see grown up Sweetback (director Melvin Van Peebles) performing in a live sex show. The viewer is treated to a closeup of the star's member as he strips off a female disguise. Soon thereafter the "plot" starts. Our hero is arrested by the Oakland police. He witnesses them beating a young black man and kills them in his defense. The rest of the film is Sweetback running from the racist cops, sometimes stopping for graphic sex.
The photography in this film is terrible. A number of scenes are shot at night without lighting, basically making the action invisible. There is very little dialogue and Sweetback almost never speaks. When people are talking, they are badly miked and their acting doesn't help matters. The chase scenes are done in psychedelic montage which is both ugly and confusing. There are a number of scenes where the cops are asking members of the black community (the film's real star) as to the whereabouts of Sweetback. These are taken from the cops POV and from how it looks, the filmmakers just approached random people on the street and asked them if they'd seen Sweetback. The editor somehow managed to cut off most of their answers. It's hard to tell what's going on half the time, since the camera work is so bad and the dialogue so hard to hear. At one point Sweetback winds up with some bikers. What's he do? He has a kind of sex-match with one of the female bikers. This scene features enough clumsy disolves to make you dizzy and enough genital shots to get the X rating for any ten movies.
I can't tell why this mess is called such a great piece of work. It fails in every technical aspect, the "art" is bad even for an acid-head movie, and the story is nothing special. If anything, this movie hurts the cause of equality since it essentially depicts blacks as inhuman sex-addicted stereotypes. The whites are pretty much shown as monsters. This is the worst blaxploitation film I've ever seen and easily one of the hundred worst movies ever made. SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAAD ASSSSS SONG is no more than badly made violent pornography for the acid head. It's not a classic and it's not important.
An ugly hooker about 40 years old forces the director's son Mario, who couldn't have been more than twelve, to have sex with her. The copulation goes on for what seems like forever, with this naked hooker simulating orgasms while this naked little boy, half her size, tries to penetrate her. The director doesn't even spare us a shot of the little boy's tiny, undeveloped penis.
If anyone did this today, they would be jailed immediately for sexual exploitation of a child. I wonder how grown-up Mario feels about his own father having done this to him?
The film is certainly anti-white, but I fail to see how anyone can call it pro-black. You'd have a hard time finding a worse depiction of black life than this one -- where the main characters perform kinky sex shows for groups of leering onlookers, just to take one example.
The director's attitude towards women is despicable. He goes overboard depicting every female character as a nasty, ugly spunk receptacle. Don't bother looking for some white racist's depiction of black women as worthless, filthy skanks ... you'll find that right here.
If Van Peebles wanted to make an anti-white propaganda film, fine. It's a free country. But he couldn't have made an uglier, less coherent, more inept and clumsy picture than this one. If it's remembered at all it should be as the filthiest insult to the black community ever put on celluloid.
"sweet sweetback" is a confusing movie. the first time i saw it, having already been exposed to the plethora of "blaxploitation" that followed it, my reaction was... "huh?"
really... people aren't being entirely unfair, this movie is kind of a big mess in some ways... on the other hand, one could say the same thing about some of the writings of say, James Joyce. And like Joyce I think it's a piece of work (and yes, art) that needs to be meditated upon again-and-again, not simply dismissed.
I do, as I implied, at the same time disagree with the negative reviews posted by some others... clearly everyone has a right to their interpretation, myself I think, as I've watched the film again-and-again, that it deserves far more credit than it's being given...
It is very easy for a modern audience to perhaps overlook this film as one of the slew of 'Blaxpliotation' films produced in the 70s, however this stands out firstly as virtually the originator of that mode of films, and as a crusade for a young, talented black artist and director to make a film that is both honest and challenging about the representation of black people in cinema.
If nothing else you must respect Melvin Van Peebles for the Guerrilla film making techniques that created this movie.
This film is a great argument for the importance to minority groups within any society to gain access to and control of media production in order to challenge dominant ideologies and representations put forward in mainstream media.
It is also virtually impossible to view Baadasssss! without a tear coming to your eyes, so difficult and harrowing was Melvin Van Peebles journey to get this film made.
In this latter sense, Van Peebles is making an attempt, much like Godard did with his early films (particularly Breathless and My Life to Live), to break through and re-configure conventions into something that is kind of f***ed up, but is alive and interesting in ways that more expensive or resourceful movies would have. Peebles makes his movies sort of out of junk-yard avant-garde parts, like some kind of garish vision taken in via superimpositions, montages, and a soundtrack as a combination of great Earth, Wind and Fire songs and a collage of voice-overs during Sweetback's run. Now, if looking at it from a purely objective viewpoint, of how it is technically, it's a little all over the place and, of course, totally dated. Peebles is also so intense with his camera- and rightfully so- that he lets his script sort of go into a better lack of focus; a lot of the time I only had a slight understanding of what was going on, and sometimes just not at all.
This being said, it's a tremendous credit to Peebles as an independent filmmaker that the film even got finished; he had many production difficulties, as later chronicled in the film Bad Asssss. It's a very rough movie, with scenes going very much into the realm of pornography (even though, unlike most pornos of the period, it doesn't go for the jugular with its angles and shots- if anything Peebles is a little inert as a lover). All the same, it has a lot that pops out as striking, not just in its rambling assortment of visuals, which combine location shots of urban sprawl, deserts, and industrial areas, with the very real, un-glamorized faces of those in the 'ghetto', but in the subject matter as well. It is sensationalized for cinematic effect, but the point still remains today, and is quite ideal as Peebles's most notoriously crazy and weirdly exciting effort.
IF you want to watch a true blaxploitation classic I recommend "hitman."
This movie manages to insult just about everyone. Blacks, whites, hispanics, and women are not spared from some level of stupidity. This movie also proudly exploits children (Mario performing child porn) and women (performing lots of porn). The women in this movie are treated the same as they are in rap and metal videos. If this is Melvin's social statement, he doesn't think too highly of women.
This movie may have started the blaxploition genre but that doesn't mean this was a good movie. This movie had such potential because Melvin was the first black filmmaker to attempt to address serious social issues but failed miserably. Mario's movie did a great job of addressing the social injustices of the time. In the end, this movie had no point.
If this movie had been made by a white guy, it would have been called the most racist movie of all time.
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.