Melven Van Peebles
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Xenon Video VHS
It is not without some merit that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song credits “the Black Community” in its opening scene. It is popularly recognized as the first “blaxploitation” film, and is thus a cornerstone of black cinema. Though the credit is superfluous and unnecessary, the film is inspired by the cinematic depiction of an entire race.
“Blaxploitation” is itself an ironic term, as It labels a filmic movement that involves less-exploitative depictions of black characters than in other films. There are other fundamentals: scoring is ethnic funk, and sexual promiscuity is a popular trend (Peebles received a venereal disease during the making of this film). It is a popular, uninhibited, and residual film genre.
Released in 1971 Sweet Sweetback would precede Shaft by a number of months. In the title role is Melvin Van Peebles (also director, composer, writer, and editor), the soft-spoken, iconic antihero for the black community. Despite the violence related to his conflict, Sweetback is passive, violating stereotypical notions of militant black characters. (At no point in the film does he harm anyone with a gun.)
Sweet Sweetback (a phallic reference I was unaware of) is a generous coupling of 70s filmic techniques: it is edited manically, vivid colors abound, and the main theme is frequently reprised. Sweetback’s technical ploy is entirely generic by this measure, though the film serves an adjunctive purpose. The dialogue has a colloquial wit (“Buy yourself a Last Supper. You’re a Dead Man.”), and there is a clever in-joke in Sweetback’s coital ability, for which even white women fail to resist. Finally, Sweetback achieves further significance as it is secondarily representative of an entire decade.
Peebles, having directed five films prior, sought financing by a major studio and expectedly failed due to the film’s radical ethno-centric premise. Bill Cosby forwarded the needed sum, and Peebles made the film with $500,000. Sweetback is, again, a generic, escapist fiction, though has a distinct autobiographic element in its foundation.
The titles appear over an explicit sequence: in a brothel a prostitute seduces a young boy (portrayed by 13-year-old Mario Van Peebles). The sequence completes with changeover: the commensurate act is completed, and Sweetback, now grown up, returns his hat to its preferred angle and exits the room. The scene digresses a character whose history is limited. Thereon, Sweetback wields hit coital swagger with frequency; it is an esteemed trait the film underlines.
Sweetback is a passive, silent protagonist for his people. He exchanges favors with sex (seen frequently in the film, earning its X rating). In an early setup he is recruited by white police officers to accompany them as a staged prisoner in a routine patrol. The policemen target and beat a black. Sweetback rescues him and kills the policemen. The remainder of the film involves his flee from immediate conviction, and to a larger extent white oppression.
Sweetback flees away from barren gutters and Los Angeles aqueducts to the border of Baja California: this is the distinctive movement that occupies the remainder film. Sweetback passes “caution” signs in the foreground and imminent police sirens. It is an abstract illustration of oppression and is given generous screen time. Sweetback’s continual running, complimented by the aforementioned score and cutting, is a thematic expression of the film’s racial scheme: it is a black man at the whim of whites, and in this film, for the first time it is noted, he gets away.
“This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of The Man,” the title credits explain. This homage is justifiable, though Sweetback is less a film spawned from actual racially assumptive roles than from maligned racial depictions in film. Stereotypical black characters are evident — pimps, hustlers, unemployed laymen — and their presence seems to parody to their popular depictions in film: at least this is the most apparent interpretation.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is politically motivated, but is not political. The oppressive whites in the film are caricatures (and most, incidentally, are in the police); they torture Sweetback’s allies for clues, threaten with guns, and are racially motivated. Sweetback’s incriminating action — murder — is justified in this haughty racial context. Finally, it is style, glamour, and even virtuosic direction (in the inclusive use of so many familiar techniques) that paves Sweetback’s value as a timepiece — its lasting, testimonial contribution is its position as the first of its kind.