The film brought Van Peebles close to the Black Panther party; party cofounder Huey P. Newton called it “the first truly revolutionary Black film.” (A member of the East Bay Dragons, the Black Oakland motorcycle club, rescues the film's protagonists in a key scene.)
With its hard-living, tough-talking depiction of life in the ghetto, underscored by a message of empowerment as told from a Black perspective, Sweetback set the tone for a genre that turned out dozens of films over the next few years and prompted a debate over whether Black people were being recognized or exploited.
“All the films about Black people up to now have been told through the eyes of the Anglo-Saxon majority in their rhythms and speech and pace,” Van Peebles told Newsweek in 1971, the year of the film’s release.
“I could have called it The Ballad of the Indomitable Sweetback. But I wanted the core audience, the target audience, to know it’s for them,” he told the Associated Press in 2003. “So I said ‘Ba-ad Asssss,’ like you really say it.”
Made for around $500,000 (including $50,000 provided by Bill Cosby), it grossed $14 million at the box office despite an X-rating, limited distribution and mixed critical reviews. The New York Times, for example, accused Van Peebles of merchandizing injustice and called the film “an outrage.”
Van Peebles, who complained fiercely to the Motion Picture Association over the X-rating, gave the film the tagline: “Rated X by an all-white jury.”
But in the wake of the its success, Hollywood realized an untapped audience and began churning out such box office hits as Shaft and Superfly that were softer in tone, and known for bringing in such top musicians as Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes to work on the soundtracks.
Many of Hollywood’s versions were exaggerated crime dramas, replete with pimps and drug dealers, which drew heavy criticism in both the white and Black press.
“What Hollywood did — they suppressed the political message, added caricature — and blaxploitation was born,” Van Peebles said in 2002. “The colored intelligentsia were not too happy about it.”
In fact, civil rights groups like the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality coined the phrase “blaxploitation” and formed the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. Among the genre’s 21st century fans was Quentin Tarantino, whose Oscar-winning “Django Unchained” was openly influenced by blaxploitation films and spaghetti Westerns.
After his initial success, Van Peebles was bombarded with directing offers, but he chose to maintain his independence.
“I’ll only work with them on my terms,” he said. “I’ve whipped the man’s ass on his own turf. I’m number one at the box office — which is the way America measures things — and I did it on my own. Now they want me, but I’m in no hurry.”
Van Peebles then got involved on Broadway, writing and producing several plays and musicals like the Tony-nominated Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and Don’t Play Us Cheap. He later wrote the movie Greased Lighting starring Richard Pryor as Wendell Scott, the first Black race car driver.
In the 1980s, Van Peebles turned to Wall Street and options trading. He wrote a financial self-help guide entitled Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market.
In 1995, Van Peebles worked with his son Mario on the film Panther, an adaptation of his novel about the Black Panther Party. In 2003, Mario paid tribute to his father with Baadasssss!, about the making of Sweetback. Last year, Van Peebles appeared in a music video, "Angel (Life and Death of the Earth in the Key of F," by the New York avant-garde jazz group Standing on the Corner.
Born Melvin Peebles in Chicago on Aug. 21, 1932, he would later add “Van” to his name. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953 and joined the Air Force, serving as a navigator for three years.
After military service, he moved to Mexico and worked as a portrait painter, followed by a move to San Francisco, where he started writing short stories and making short films.
Van Peebles soon went to Hollywood, but he was only offered a job as a studio elevator operator. Disappointed, he moved to Holland to take graduate courses in astronomy while also studying at the Dutch National Theatre.
Eventually he gave up his studies and moved to Paris, where he learned he could join the French directors’ guild if he adapted his own work written in French. He quickly taught himself the language and wrote several novels.
One he made into a feature film. La Permission/The Story of the Three Day Pass was the story of an affair between a Black U.S. soldier and a French woman. It won the critic’s choice award at the San Francisco film festival in 1967, and Van Peebles gained Hollywood’s attention.
The following year, he was hired to direct and write the score for Watermelon Man, the tale of a white bigot (played by comic Godfrey Cambridge in white face) who wakes up one day as a Black man.
With money earned from the project, Van Peebles went to work on Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
Van Peebles’ death came just days before the New York Film Festival is to celebrate him with a 50th anniversary of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Next week, the Criterion Collection is to release the box set Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films. A revival of his play Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death is also planned to hit Broadway next year, with Mario Van Peebles serving as creative producer.