A June 19 Style story misidentified actor Godfrey Cambridge, the star of the film "Watermelon Man." (Published 6/22/04)
He's got the newsboy cap cocked to one side, trendy Seven jeans cinched around his scrawny waist, omnipresent stogie clutched in one hand, and he's chatting, chatting, chatting. Expounding. Melvin Van Peebles, filmmaker/musician/dramatist/commodities trader, is giving us a little impromptu tour of his pied-a-terre. The ladies, you see, they like the tours of the pieds-a-terre.
It's on the intimate side, a cozy condo, because that way, his kids won't get any ideas about camping out here, you know? That's why everywhere else, around the world, Paris, Amsterdam, he keeps just a room. No need for anything more. But here, stateside, there's a little more space, a little more stuff. Like over there is the desk he had made to look like a skylight, and over there, open the door, there. There's his office, a closet crammed full of art and computers and whatnot.
"C'mere," he says, standing by the upright piano in the narrow foyer, look. "C'mere." He slides an arm around a visitor's waist, yanks her a little closer. He's sly, this one.
He flips a switch, points at the jukebox lights ringing the archway into the breakfast nook. Isn't that cool?
And over here, look, there's the bedroom. Yup, he had the stucco walls done, and that ornately carved bed, that he had custom made.
It's a single bed, because, well, if you're a cad, it's a good idea. Not that he's saying he's a cad, you understand, but if you are a cad, and if your latest conquest is falling in love with you, well, she'll manage to make do in that little bed for, oh, three or four days. Max.
"After that," he cackles, twisting his narrow frame around to mimic someone in acute physical distress, "they'll say, 'Oh, baby, my back.' "
"And I'll just say, 'What can I do? Baby, it's an heirloom.' "
At 71, Sir Melvin -- yes, Sir, he was awarded the French Legion of Honor when he was in his sixties -- is still milking the mack daddy persona. That's what he does, and that is what he has always done. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Reference his third film, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," in which he wrote, directed, edited, sang and starred as Sweetback, cinema's first ghetto hero, a man on the run from the racist pig cops, a man with certain, shall we say, talents.
Good Dyke Fairy Godmother: Ah ha. Now Sweetback here's the greatest, greatest in the world. Oh, I know what the hell you're thinking. Ha. How many times have I heard that before? Well as a special added attraction, if one of you young ladies would like to step up and try this gentleman, I'm sure you'll find him more than lively. . . .
The film, which earned an X rating back in 1971, was the largest-grossing independent film of its time, eventually raking in $15 million. Today, critics may grumble about its roughness, criticism that Van Peebles finds "perplexing": "If I had made the film slick, in a certain way, at that time, you were leery, hmmm? You wouldn't know why, but, 'This looks like [expletive], man, this looks like it's real, like it was a newsreel or something.' That wasn't an accident; that was done purposefully."
But "Sweetback" was a pioneering effort, both for its unapologetically political stance and for the fact that it was financed without the interference of the Hollywood studio system. (Van Peebles, who'd previously directed "Watermelon Man," starring Godfrey Chambers, had a three-picture deal with Columbia, which he jettisoned because he didn't want to comply with studio demands to make something "funny.") It is famous for having spawned the era of blaxploitation filmmaking, and later would influence many indie filmmakers, among them Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino.
And now, his son Mario, an actor/director in his own right, has released his homage to his dad, the docudrama "Baadasssss! (aka "Getting the Man's Foot Outta Your Baadasssss!"), a movie about the making of a movie. In the film, which opened last week to mostly positive reviews, the son plays the father in a loving and yet frank look at a complicated man.
"Hollywood liked to see us clowning," Mario intones in a voice-over, referring to the preponderance of Stepin Fetchit characters dominating the big screen at the time. "But America wasn't in a laughing mood. Especially black America."
During the shooting of the film, most of the crew wasn't in a laughing mood, either. There were the death threats: He shot the film non-union, pretending to be shooting an all-black porno, and the union wasn't too happy about that. He borrowed money from dubious sources. (And legitimate ones, too, including Bill Cosby, who saved the day with $50,000.)
His mostly multiracial crew, while lugging around a bunch of equipment, was arrested and thrown in jail because the cops thought that colored folks with all that machinery couldn't have come by it through honorable means. And along the way, Van Peebles temporarily lost sight in one eye; wrote a bad check for $500 to a then-unheard of group, Earth Wind & Fire, for the soundtrack; beat the daylights out of an editor who tried to quit the film; and famously used his then-13-year-old son in a sex scene.
"You can't make this [expletive] up," Van Peebles says, still clearly entertained by this 33-year-old story. "People say, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon. But. It. Really. Did. Happen."
It really did happen, and when Mario spoke to him about optioning the rights to the "Sweetback" book, Van Peebles really did charge him for it. $2,000. It was, he said, business.
"I like Mario, and I trusted him politically and humanly, too," he recalls. (Mario could not be reached for comment.)
"I told him, 'Don't make me too nice; do what you want to do.' Secretly, I do think I'm nice. Probably some serial killers do, too."
Later, studio execs, seeing the success of "Sweetback," stopped pre-production of a detective movie and recast it as an all-black film, "Shaft." And thus was born the blaxploitation era of filmmaking.
"Independent cinema wasn't taken seriously until that time," he says.
"I did the one thing that was unforgivable" by studio execs, he says, sucking on that cigar. "I was the boss. . . . Take note of what happened. . . . I had no bwana. . . . I'm the boss."
A pause. Inhale, puff, puff.
"And that was not viewed too well."
He gets up, meanders over to the galley kitchen.
"Lucky for me, I have a lot of other arcs, a lot of arrows in my quiver."
His many arrows make Van Peebles the quintessential Renaissance Man. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where, as a "10-year-old midget," he was forced to work in his father's tailor shop for 50 cents an hour. Sometimes his father gave him no money, just rags that he had to sell on the street to rustle up some cash. Some folks would call that child abuse. He would call that learning to handle. Hel-lo. Handling came in handy. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan and became one of the first black officers in the Air Force, worked as a painter and a writer and a cable car driver in San Francisco. He moved to Paris, taught himself French, worked as a crime reporter, interviewed Malcolm X for a controversial article that was never published, wrote a few novels there and decided that what he really wanted to do was direct movies.
But back then, in Hollywood, a black man had a hard time getting a picture deal, so he made his film "The Story of a Three-Day Pass" ("La Permission") in his adopted country. It ended up winning the top prize in the 1968 San Francisco Film Festival -- as the festival's French entry.
He started running marathons in his forties, and in his fifties, he made history twice, becoming both the oldest and the first African American on the commodities floor. (He later wrote a book about his experience, "Bold Money: How to Get Rich in the Options Market.")
He's got plans to direct what he calls the completion of the "trilogy" of "Baadasssss!" films. (He won't elaborate, nor is he keen to wax on about the state of cinema today.) He's translating a graphic French novel into English, a novel that arrived rather mysteriously and anonymously at his Paris home. He fell in love with the novel, with its whimsical drawings and fanciful subject: an old woman's conversation with her vagina. He is, he says, open to fielding offers from publishers. And he makes music, performing with a band in Paris, composing and rap-singing in his gravelly growl. He never learned to read music, so he devised his own form of musical notation by ascribing a number to each key.
He remains a scrapper.
Around his neck, there is a faded blue-green tattoo, a series of dots circling his neck. On one side, in French are inscribed the words, "Cut along the dotted line." On the other side, in English, "An inch here." It is, he says, a reminder to keep himself humble. On the days that he's feeling a little full of himself, he has only to look in the mirror and remember. Something about people always wanting to take his head off? Um, okay. On his tush, he says -- and we're taking his word for it -- he has tattooed in the West African language Bambara, "If you can."
Because, he says, "people have tried."
The phone rings constantly. He mutters into it in English and Dutch. (He studied astronomy and mathematics in Holland): "Hello? Who? Does he owe you any money? Hahahaha." There are discussions about film rights. Confabs about that evening's theater plans. The phone rings again. Yes, it is a lady friend, and she is in town, and she is requesting the pleasure of his company.
"Hey! How are ya? What's going on in life? Have you gone seen Mario's film? You gotta go see that. . . .
"Yup. Uh-huh. When are you coming to New York? . . . You gonna come and do the funky monkey?. . . . Why should I change? What the hell?"
He hangs up, hangs his head down, his shoulders heaving. Cracking up.
"What the hell?" he sputters. "Why'd you call me? Hey, hey, hey, let's get real here. I'm crazy? You called."
And then he throws out a couple of dirty jokes, the one about the chicken and the egg in bed together. And the fable about the snake biting the lady as he told her, you knew I was a snake.
There is a moral to these tales.
"Don't write a check with your mouth that your ass can't cash."
Which, he says, ever the self-promoter, brings us back to "Baadasssss!"
"I'm frankly puzzled that people say I was megalomaniacal," Van Peebles says. "I did what I had to do. . . . Who's gonna profit if the thing works? My family. . . . I go into places [today] and see minorities, I see women, people who wouldn't have a [expletive] shot. . . . You don't win the war with clean white gloves on. Or the gloves don't stay clean."
Cackle. Puff, puff.