The working title of Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! was “How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass,” which, though wordier, gives a better idea of its thrust. The film is a dramatized account of how Van Peebles’s father, Melvin, made Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the 1971 indie flick that showed the world there was an audience for a movie about a black man striking back.
Mario actually had a small part in his dad’s masterpiece: Melvin cast his 13-year-old son in a flashback in which Melvin’s own character loses his virginity to an older prostitute, who appreciatively gives the boy protagonist his name, Sweet Sweetback.
Baadasssss! opens in 1970 with Melvin (played by Mario) riding high in Hollywood. He’s just completed a racially themed comedy called Watermelon Man for Columbia Pictures, which has offered him a three-picture deal. The studio wants him to make more comedies, but Melvin wants to make a movie about a black man who’s not at all funny. The story he has in mind is about a live sex show performer who works in an LA whorehouse. When he witnesses white cops beating a Black Panther, Sweetback assaults the cops with their own handcuffs, then spends the movie on the run–waking up to political realities in America and turning into a full-fledged revolutionary. Melvin’s agent (Saul Rubinek, perpetrating his usual Jewish minstrelsy) freaks out when he hears his client’s plans. The studio won’t back the project, and since Melvin won’t make a comedy for them, he’s blowing his shot at the studio deal. At this point Melvin starts scouring LA for independent financial backing, nonunion crews, and nonprofessional actors.
Styling himself as a committed radical, Melvin convinces himself and everyone else involved that Sweetback is a significant political statement, not low-budget schlock (though really it’s both). After fending off the sexual advances of a creepy investor (Adam West), he lines up a porn producer (David Alan Grier) who can provide the nonunion crews and a politically engaged cinematographer (Paul Rodriguez) from a Latino filmmaking collective in New York.
Mario intercuts the narrative of Baadasssss! with faux verite interview footage of the characters. The documentary elements are intended to enhance the historical texture of the film, but they’re not often persuasive; and they look even weaker when the credits roll over genuine interview footage of survivors of the shoot reminiscing about it three decades later.
Though Mario clearly admires his father, he hasn’t prettified him much: in Baadasssss! Melvin lies, bullies, and cheats on Mario’s mother; he also punches out crew members, withholds their pay, and leaves a group of them to languish in jail for a weekend after the cops assume their film equipment must be stolen. Above all Mario portrays Melvin as a man on the move, restlessly roving from porn shoots to drug dens to Malibu beach houses in search of people he can use to get his movie made. Discovering that his secretary is dating a member of Earth, Wind and Fire, he recruits the group to record the sound track for Sweetback. Having squeezed every cent he can from family and friends, he scores a loan of 50 grand from Bill Cosby.
The audience, of course, already knows how the story ends: Melvin finished shooting Sweetback in just 19 days, the film went on to gross over $14 million, and a profitable new genre grew up in its wake: blaxploitation.
Mario’s done a good job of depicting Melvin’s accomplishments. Yet it seems to me that he’s still selling his father’s legacy short. True, he never did get his revolution off the ground, but how many movies ever revisited the political turf staked out by Sweetback? As redefined by Shaft, the nascent blaxploitation genre would trade serious issues for sex and violence with a few revolutionary bromides thrown in in the name of keeping it real.
Critics who redundantly lump Sweetback with Shaft and Foxy Brown don’t get it. Melvin was part of a much broader cultural moment. By 1970 the utopian energy of the 60s had been dissipated by political assassinations, race riots, bad drugs, the Manson slayings, and Vietnam. In its place was one big, ugly, hegemonic vibe of anger and disillusionment. Suddenly everyone–not just disenfranchised African-Americans but middle-class hippies, blue-collar workers, and even the cops themselves–seemed to have the idea that they were the ones that needed to get the Man’s foot out of their asses. By 1971 cinematic expressions of this mood were emanating from both the left and right: to the protagonist of Billy Jack, the Man was Nixonian America; for Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, the Man was the liberal political establishment (and, of course, “punks”). In Joe (1970) Peter Boyle channeled the rage of the white working class; in Taxi Driver (1976) Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader took the premise to a nihilistic place beyond all politics.
Although Mario stops short of locating Sweetback in this canon, his own film is an engaging addition to the line of classic moviemaking movies like The Bad and the Beautiful, Living in Oblivion, The Stunt Man, and Day for Night.