Like Father, Like Son
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2004; Page WE44
DESPITE its being hyped as a classic, there aren't many people, I think, who would argue that "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" is a great movie. A powerful film, maybe. An important document, to be sure, in African American cultural history. But even those who would classify the 1971 low-budget feature as a milestone of black cinema will admit, if they're honest, that it's far from a paragon of the filmmaker's art.
Amateurishly shot and often under-lit, stiffly acted and with an unsubtle script made needlessly confusing by clumsy editing, Melvin Van Peebles' directorial follow-up to the mainstream comedy "Watermelon Man" is difficult to watch from an aesthetic point of view. And it's clear why after watching "Baadasssss!," a new making-of film by Van Peebles' son, Mario, who plays his father (a man whose attitude outran his aptitude) with far more lifelike precision than insight. Yet while the younger Van Peebles certainly looks the part, "Baadasssss!" never feels like anything more than kids playing dress-up.
Here they go, in full Afro and bell-bottom regalia, re-creating Melvin Van Peebles' attempt to paint a more real tale of black life in America in response to the sanitized and marginalized Hollywood version. Their tale, as it turned out, incorporated violence and lurid sensuality -- and, some would say, perpetuated nasty stereotypes of the black man as a volcanically sexual creature of dark fantasy -- along with oppression by "the man." But while it apes the look of the counterculture that spawned "Sweet Sweetback," hitting all its marks when it comes to specific details -- the budget hassles, the run-ins with the law, the crises of artistic "vision," the film's eventual out-of-left-field popularity -- it never really captures the angry zeitgeist that was the film's incubator.
That's partly because of a strange detachment that pervades "Baadasssss!," a detachment that is underscored by Mario Van Peebles' decision to intercut his narrative with staged talking-head-style interviews with actors playing historical figures (T.K. Carter, for instance, plays Bill Cosby, who gave a much-needed infusion of cash to "Sweet Sweetback's" filmmakers at one point). Curiously, however, such faux-documentary touches have the cumulative effect of making the film feel less, not more, real.
What's more, the younger Van Peebles skirts some troubling aspects of the earlier film's making. While he includes scenes related to the fact that his father cast him, as a young boy, in one of "Sweet Sweetback's" graphic sex scenes (a scene in which the young Sweetback loses his virginity to an obese prostitute), he never really grapples with the arguably abusive nature of this exposure.
"Baadasssss!" is rife with such minutiae. See how a loaded gun once found its way onto the set! Watch as the "Sweet Sweetback" crew avoids being shut down by the unions by claiming to be filming a porn movie! Still, it loses sight of the bigger picture, in which "Sweet Sweetback" played a revolutionary role in the changing depiction of black people in popular culture. That much is true. The problem with "Baadasssss!" is that it seems to have swallowed the hype about "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" being a classic of cinema, rather than an eruption of rage at a particular moment in time that is no more.
By conjuring the nuts and bolts -- and the pitfalls -- behind "Sweet Sweetback's" creation, "Baadasssss!" assumes its audience already cares, instead of taking the time to give us a reason to.
BAADASSSSS! (R, 108 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and racial slurs, drug use, nudity, sexual content and violence. Area theaters.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Rainn Wilson as Bill Harris, left, Karimah Westbrook as Ginnie, Mario Van Peebles as his father, Melvin, and Kate Krystowiak as Moonbeam.
(Michael O'connor/sony Pictures Classics)