Nearly a decade ago, Melvin Van Peebles was known as a bad dude. Not only did he talk tough and walk tough, but he made "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," the movie that set off the black exploitation film wave. In its wake came "Shaft," "Super Fly" and a host of other films showing big and bad black heroes kicking whitey all over the screen. In making "Sweetback," Van Peebles was a one-man dynamo. He produced and directed the movie, starred in it, wrote the music, edited it, distributed and promoted it. The story of a black cop-killing superstud who challenges the white social system and escapes the country, the film grossed more than $18 million. Recently Van Peebles appeared at the Black Film Institute to introduce "Sweetback," explain it and talk about his career.
Since "Sweetback," he has written, produced and directed two Broadway musicals, "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death" and "Don't Play Us Cheap," which played simultaneously on Broadway and were nominated for Tony awards.
Right now he's writing a Broadway-bound musical called "Becky," based on Thackeray's "Vanity Fair." This fall NBC is scheduled to televise "Sophisticated Gents," a two-part, four-hour drama he wrote based on the John Williams novel, "The Junior Bachelor. Society," the story of a group of exathletes who return home to honor their high school coach.
So the Van Peebles who stirred burning anger in the black community in the early '70s with his superstud routine has proven himself as one of the few black writers working regularly in establishment circles on Broadway and in Hollywood. But the "Sweetback" period brought down the wrath of many black intellectuals who complained that Van Peebles was solidifying black stereotypes.
Psychiatrist Frances Welsing said: "A black penis never knocked off any white man." Poet Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) said the movie was a "moneymaking, autobiographical fantasy." And Ebony magazine editior Lerone Bennett, Jr. called it a "negative landmark."
In answer to a question the other night about his reaction to critics, the writer's answer was classic Van Peebles. "F -- 'em," he said with a scowl.
"Making "Sweetback' took an exorbitant amount of energy and time," he told the audience at the Black Film Institute. "I've been gestating, getting ready for other projects." Most of his recent activity has been writing -- for television or movies. He wrote "Just an Old Sweet Song," an NBC drama about a black couple moving back South, starring Robert Hooks Cicely Tyson, and followed that with a sequel. He was also a principal writer on the Richard Pryor movie, "Greased Lightning."
Still thin and taut, and wearing his trademark "small apple" cap at a jaunty tilt, the 47-year-old Van Peebles said, "I'm not a normal director. You can't look at me that way. What's kept me alive is my technical skill at doing other things.
"I'm always working on projects to jockey for position. I was the beneficiary of benign kindness. People assumed that I wasn't going to pull what I planned to do. With "Sweetback,' I just put it together a little bit at a time. I didn't do it on anybody's grant. I did it like any other young executive -- by cheating and stealing!
"I was sitting in the Fillmore Theater in 1957 and decided that I was going to change Hollywood," he recalled. "My friends thought I was full of s-- . But I did it with 'Sweetback.' Up to the time of 'Sweetback,' we [blacks)$ hadn't made a film over which we had control since the time of Oscar Micheaux ]in the 1930s)$."
Working out of the offices of his New York firm, Yeah Productions, Inc., Van Peebles said he makes a "very good living" writing for television, but he said it's frustrating work because he doesn't have total control over his product.
"People ask me why I haven't made a movie since 'Sweetback,' he said, twirling his thick, rolling mustache. "I could work just as easily as the quarterback or the halfback, but I'd like to own the franchise. 'Sweetback, Part II' is written. However, I no longer feel that it's a positive step that I finance all my ventures."
The 800-seat auditorium at Dunbar High School, where the institute holds its weekly screenings, was full (He called it "an economic prayer meeting"). After the screening many people stayed and peppered Van Peebles with questions. Many had never seen the film before and were curious about his background.
"I've never been to film school," he said. "I had to leave this country to make a film. All they would let me do in Hollywood was be a messenger."
So the Chicago-born Van Peebles, who made short films in San Francisco and worked as a cable car operator, went to Holland and France. He wrote five novels in French, worked as a newspaper reporter and earned a director's union card. With a grant from the French government, he made the film, "The Story of a Three-Day Pass," a European success. After 10 years in Europe he returned to the .S. in 1967 as a French delegate to the San Francisco Film Festival; and that, he said, embarrassed Hollywood.
"They couldn't wait to hire me," he remembered. "The French had used me to embarrass the Americans. But I didn't care about being used that way."
The director turned down several Hollywood offers before making "Watermelon Man," the comedy about a white man waking up black, starring Godfrey Cambridge.
Even though he's worked in a variety of jobs since "Sweetback," most people still associate him with that film. "I don't mind that," he said. "Whatever way I can get to the altar, I'll take it.
"Only two theaters in the country would show the film. A place in Detroit that showed triple feature zombie movies and a theater in Atlanta. I bet the Goldberg brothers in Detroit that it would break the house record. It did the first night. They hadn't opened the balcony in 15 years. After the first feature the word got around and people were lined up around the block. "I hope the film had a positive message: kick ass and take names."
After the screening, he tucked the film print under his arm. He owns all the prints. "It's rip-off city out there," he said. "I conduct my business like it's guerrilla war."