In 1971, the movie Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was released to wide acclaim in theaters. This was the first film from a black director that told a story from a black man's perspective. It doesn't seem like a big deal now, but at that time, in the years before the original Shaft, this was unheard of. Making the film was a monumental task, and Baadasssss!, based on the novel of the same name, recounts Melvin Van Peeble's experiences in making the film. His son, writer/director Mario van Peebles adapted and directed the film, and stars as his father. It's a mesmerizing account of the making of the movie, which succeeded despite many things going against it. Moreover, Mario himself was there and had a small role in the film. Not only that, but it's a great tribute from a son to his father (the very last shot after the credits is Mario, with his arm around his father, both looking at the camera.
The Van Peebles' are a strong force in black cinema. Mario (Standing Knockdown, Love Kills) has been the one more active as of late, and although his output is mixed (both in directing and acting), he can turn out some really good stuff. If he was more selective, he could turn out to be a very good director. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song came about after the success of Van Peeble's first film, Watermelon Man. Studios were very eager to sign him to make additional films, given that he make the films they wanted him to make. This meant demeaning portrayals of African Americans, and compromising his artistic vision. Instead, against the wishes of his agent (Saul Rubinek, The Singing Detective, Rush Hour 2), he decided to make a film from that was completely the opposite. He knew that Sweetback would alienate whites and studio executives, but this was the film he had to make. He knew this, yet still pressed forward. It was Van Peeble's singular determination, which Mario ably portrays, that was able to get the film made.
To make matters worse, Van Peebles had some pretty progressive goals in mind. He wanted a racially diverse crew, something that would never happen with the lily-white unions. To get around this, he convinced everybody he was making an adult movie, causing unions to steer clear of him. After his funding was pulled, he put up his own savings, something his partner (Rainn Wilson, House of 1000 Corpses, Full Frontal) described as crazy. Baadasssss presents Van Peeble's as a driven man, forsaking nearly everything to get his movie finished. It takes a physical and emotion toll on him, yet he must finish the film to remain true to himself. After he couldn't find a suitable star, he reluctantly decided to be the star himself. Mario lets the viewer see all aspects of filmmaking, from scripting, casting, editing, and shooting. The crew was anything but friendly, but this trial by fire style of guerilla filmmaker allowed them to bond. In the end, it was an infusion of cash from Bill Cosby and music by a new group called Earth, Wind, & Fire that helped the movie become the highest grossing independent film of 1971.
Van Peebles mixes various styles in Baadasssss! There are faux documentary interviews, followed by actual interviews that roll during the credits. This is a serious examination of the making of a seminal film, and it provides a wealth of information from somebody who was actually there. It is also riotously funny at times. The cast is nice mix of newcomers, veterans, and some good cameos, and performs surprisingly well together. One imagines that there is also some therapeutic element to it. Van Peebles casts Khleo Thomas (Walking Tall, Holes) as a younger version of himself, whom his father cast in the movie in a presumably traumatic on-screen deflowering. Van Peebles and Dennis Haggerty expertly adapted the elder Van Peeble's novel, making a film that is both highly entertaining and informative.
|Mongoose Rates It: Really Good.|
|1 hour, 48 minutes, Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexuality/nudity.|
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