In 1971, the director Melvin Van Peebles released "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," an X-rated borderline porn film with a microscopic budget, an indecipherably choppy narrative style and an almost all-black cast with no stars. The movie made more than $4 million -- nearly 60 times its cost -- and helped usher in what is now seen as a golden era in independent film.
"Sweet Sweetback" also helped create a genre called blaxploitation, a deliberately ambiguous term that refers not only to the exploitation of the hitherto-untapped African American market but also to the often gratuitous sex and violence that the films contained. The blaxploitation trend was relatively short-lived -- Hollywood studios soon discovered that black audiences were just as willing to watch white action heroes as those of their own race -- but it was hugely influential, to which Spike Lee, John Singleton and Quentin Tarantino can readily attest.
"Baadasssss!," by Melvin's son Mario Van Peebles, is a lively, absorbing, often uncannily authentic docudrama that chronicles the making of "Sweet Sweetback." As the film opens, Melvin (played by Mario, who has no trouble projecting his father's charisma) has just made a modestly successful comedy called "Watermelon Man" and the studios are eager to seal a multi-picture deal for more of the same. But Melvin's heart is elsewhere: "The times were changing. The Panthers knew it. The students knew it. Only Hollywood didn't know it."
In a fury, Melvin wrote "Sweet Sweetback," the story of a hustler who goes on the lam after attacking two corrupt white cops. His picaresque journey through Los Angeles' black and poor white communities -- their whorehouses and bars, their churches and hot dog stands -- ultimately leads him to the desert, where he eludes a sheriff's posse and crosses the border into Mexico. The film was "dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who had enough of The Man." When his original star dropped out, Melvin wound up playing Sweet Sweetback, the first bona fide black action hero.
As it happens, "Baadasssss!" is far more accomplished artistically than the work that inspired it. Using reenactments, pseudo-documentary interviews with the cast and crew, and a fascinating technique of superimposing actual footage from "Sweet Sweetback" onto his own movie, Mario does a terrific job of capturing the outlaw energy of the original production, which featured an impressively integrated crew. Today, "Sweet Sweetback" looks too crude, in both form and content, to be celebrated as a cinematic high point. But, as "Baadasssss!" so exuberantly demonstrates, it smashed some crucial cinematic barriers: It provided a training ground for black production people; it portrayed an African American man not as a caricature or a vehicle for white liberal guilt, but as a complex moral agent; and it helped prove that you could make a box office hit outside the studio system.
Perhaps most important, it featured the real-life black community as its context and backdrop. As Mario explains in his voiceover as Melvin, the director wanted "Sweet Sweetback" to show "all the faces Norman Rockwell never painted." He did, and black audiences responded. Toward the end of "Baadasssss!" when "Sweet Sweetback" opens in Detroit, Mario has thoroughly invested the audience in Melvin's own success; we're rooting for the ragtag team of guerrilla filmmakers, who through ingenuity and arrogance have created a cultural watershed. (It bears noting, too, that the current film's musical score is much better than the repetitive riff that a new band called Earth, Wind & Fire performed for the original.)
"Sweet Sweetback" has been duly canonized in cinematic history; "Baadasssss!" serves as a permanent, passionate reminder of that fact, and as a son's paean to his father's accomplishment. The problematic politics of the original movie -- its sometimes stereotyped depictions of black folk and its retrograde sexuality -- are neatly avoided in a film that is clearly meant to serve as a way for Mario not only to honor his father but also, quite literally, to become him.
The most troubling scene in both "Sweet Sweetback" and "Baadasssss!" is when Melvin forces his 13-year-old son to do a graphic sex scene with an older woman, a shockingly exploitative moment in both movies. The way he portrays the event in his own film suggests that Mario was far more affected by that experience than he let on at the time -- who wouldn't be? -- but that brief scene is about as far as he gets in exploring some of "Sweet Sweetback's" more painful contradictions. It would be interesting for a filmmaker to delve more deeply into Melvin's stock response of "It is what it is" to questions about his motives and methods. But that's a different movie. As it stands, "Baadasssss!" is Mario's version of what it was, and as such it's worthy of attention, praise and proper respect.
Baadasssss! (108 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for pervasive language and some strong sexuality and nudity.