Van Peebles shows men in blaxploitation

By Peter Hemminger

When Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was released in 1970, it kick started the blaxploitation genre, which lead directly to classics like Shaft and a little less directly to Blacula. It also became the highest grossing independent movie of the year, and in the eyes of many, helped bring independent cinema into the limelight.

Sweet Sweetback was the product of one man’s vision–Melvin Van Peebles wrote it, directed it, starred, edited, co-wrote the soundtrack with then-unknowns Earth Wind and Fire. Van Peebles put his home, health and reputation on the line to get it made, so to say he was driven is an understatement.

With Baadasssss!, Van Peebles’ son Mario takes a shot at telling his father’s story. Like his dad, he takes on multiple roles, in this case actor, director, writer and producer, to keep the film true to his vision. And like his father, Mario wants to use his film to highlight the inequities in the Hollywood system and the barriers due to race.

Sweet Sweetback’s portrayal of racism was about as blatant as it gets and Baadasssss!’s full title, Gettin’ The Man’s Foot Outta Your Baadasssss! clearly shows Mario makes things just as obvious as his old man. Subtlety isn’t really the point, though, when you’re dealing with a character like the elder Van Peebles. Mario plays his father as a cigar chomping, motorcycle riding hardass who learned to hustle at an early age.

The character presented in Baadasssss! is so manipulative and self-centered, so willing to use those around him to further his vision, he’d be entirely unsympathetic if he weren’t also so charismatic. It’s hard to like a man, though, who would put his 13 year old son into one of Sweet Sweetback’s sex scenes, but the film tries to help the audience understand. As Van Peebles repeatedly states in Baadasssss!, his entire life is on the line. Watching the younger Van Peebles play the part of his father bullying himself into doing that sex scene is at ounce uncomfortable and gripping.

Van Peebles’ take on his father may not be accurate, but it feels right as it’s the movie’s undeniable standout performance. There’s never a second doubt that this man would sacrifice anything for his goals. While his persistence is borderline mythic, the performance is grounded and believable. The rest of the acting is just as consistently strong. Even the cameo by Adam West as a potential philanthropist who understands what it’s like to be shut out of the Hollywood system, while uninhibited, is entirely grounded in a sense of reality.

The directing, unfortunately, is a little less steady. The gritty feel of most of the scenes may add to the authenticity, but the decision to include documentary-style interviews throughout takes away from the film’s reality.

Clips of the real characters relating their takes on events are a mainstay of documentaries and biopics, and rightly so. Getting the perspective of those who are actually involved provides enlightening alternate perspectives. When it’s the film’s actors instead of the real subjects in these clips, no perspective is gained. Instead, the viewer is jarred from the film’s storyline for no good reason. It’s all the more baffling when real interviews are shown over the closing credits.

Mario Van Peebles clearly respects his father and believes in the significance of Melvin’s films. Baadasssss! does an admirable job of portraying Melvin as a human–flawed but driven to excellence, and obsessed with reaching his goals. No matter how many obstacles were set in his way, no matter how many situations conspired to sink the production, Melvin would plow forward.

Ain’t no way the man’s foot was gettin’ in his baadasssss.

Leave a comment