It is not that these deaths are more important than others. But as someone who grew up as a fatherless and poor Black boy, I did not learn any semblance of Black cultural or political history until financial aid got me to college. Seeing people who look like you, whose stories are your stories, matters. Having a father figure, even from a distance, matters. It is the difference between knowing what is possible and a life stuck in fear and hopelessness.
Melvin Van Peebles gave me courage and hope. The first time I heard his name, it was in the 1990s when I was a 20-something writer for Quincy Jones’s Vibe magazine. I was told I needed to watch “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” Van Peebles’s 1971 magnum opus that kick-started the modern Black film movement in America — a movement that continues to this day with Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and many others.
I had never seen anything like “Sweetback.” A Black man as the hero, with barely any dialogue, fleeing White police attempting to capture him for a crime he did not commit. Mind-blowing allusions to America’s history of slavery and segregation. Wildly provocative sex scenes that upended racial stereotypes. A Black Power middle finger to racism. Directed, written, produced and scored by Van Peebles (although he couldn’t read music), with an original soundtrack by the then-unknown group Earth, Wind & Fire. And for good measure, Van Peebles was also the star, did his own stunts and spearheaded the marketing campaign.
Largely financed by himself and a few friends, “Sweetback” premiered in just Atlanta and Detroit at first. It received an X rating, but over time would rake in the rough equivalent of $90 million in today’s dollars, single-handedly launching the Blaxploitation film era. All because Van Peebles was habitually a self-made man.
I spent a day with him somewhere in the mid-’90s, interviewing him for HBO. There he was, the obligatory hat atop his head, the half-smoked, half-chewed cigar either in his mouth or between his curled fingers, with the ultra-lean physique of a man, in his 60s then, who ran eight miles every single day.
I was mesmerized. By his humble roots in Chicago. By his bachelor’s degree from an Ohio college when Jim Crow reigned supreme. By his three years in the U.S. Air Force with that rebellious persona. By his self-proclaimed boring stint working in San Francisco on a cable car where he decided he would become a filmmaker while flipping through a picture book — despite no filmmaking experience.
Nor would Van Peebles allow racism to stop him. He tried to penetrate Hollywood in the late 1950s but was told he could be an elevator operator or, at best, a dancer. Upset but unfazed, he moved his wife and three children to Europe, not unlike many African Americans who had fled there for the freedom they could not obtain here.
As Van Peebles told me during the time we spent together, freedom for him was landing in France and writing novels and producing films. But he eventually returned to America by the late 1960s to direct his first Hollywood-backed picture, “Watermelon Man.”
Ever the restless spirit, Van Peebles wanted more. He wanted full creative control over his films in his native land. He wanted his voice to be heard in every way, so he created spoken-word albums that foreshadowed the verbal acrobatics of hip-hop. And with the stunning success of “Sweetback,” Van Peebles found himself on Broadway creating plays.
No, he was not a perfect man, none of us are. But he did the best with what he had and was never afraid to seize the time. That, to me, is his greatest legacy. Indeed, there would not be multimedia visionaries like Lena Waithe or Jordan Peele had there been no Van Peebles. Nor would there be the self-empowerment ethos of a Jay-Z or a Cardi B without the director’s fearless trailblazing.
When I watched director Mario Van Peebles’s breathtaking Instagram tribute to his dad, I cried again. Mario said Melvin was all our fathers. Indeed, he was mine.
From a distance, he gave me a blueprint on how to be an artist, a content creator, a voice for the voiceless.
From a distance, I saw in Melvin Van Peebles myself, telling me as he told countless others of his children, to always “keep on keepin’ on.”
Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, filmmaker, civil and human rights activist, and author of a forthcoming biography of Tupac Shakur.