The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Melvin Van Peebles, fiercely independent filmmaker, dies at 89

Melvin Van Peebles in 2004. (Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post)
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Melvin Van Peebles, whose low-budget 1971 phenomenon, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” — an X-rated film about a Black revolutionary’s survival on the run — proved a milestone of independent and African American cinema, died Sept. 21 at his home in Manhattan. He was 89.

His family, the Criterion Collection and Janus Films announced the death in a statement but did not provide a cause.

Over a six-decade career, Mr. Van Peebles continually reinvented himself: as an Air Force officer, a San Francisco cable-car gripman (operator), a self-taught film auteur, a novelist in English and French, a Tony Award-nominated playwright and composer, an Emmy Award-winning TV writer, a spoken-word artist and, for a spell in the 1980s, the only Black floor trader on the American Stock Exchange.

Throughout his life, Mr. Van Peebles was propelled and defined by his boundless self-confidence and bravado. As a young man — lacking money, connections and institutional support — he practically willed himself into recognition as a visual artist.

His legacy rested largely on “Sweetback,” for which he served as writer, director, producer, composer, stuntman and star. After finding no other Black actor in Hollywood willing to risk his image on such a role, he cast himself as the title character — a sex-show stud who beats up two racist police officers and spends the rest of the film politically radicalized, an unlikely hero on a righteous odyssey.

Made on a shoestring budget of $500,000, “Sweetback” opened in two Black-neighborhood theaters, one in Detroit and the other in Atlanta. It quickly set box-office­ records and expanded its reach to other theaters, grossing more than $10 million that year on its way to becoming one of the most lucrative independent films in history.

Mr. Van Peebles attributed the film’s success to his belief that he could surmount any obstacle with hustle and ingenuity.

He said that when he couldn’t obtain financing for the film, he bluffed a bank into giving him a large line of credit and borrowed $50,000 from actor-comedian Bill Cosby. To avoid paying union wages, he told the trade guilds that he was making a fast, cheap porno that wasn’t worth their time. Then he shot the 97-minute film in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in just 20 days.

When the Motion Picture Association of America gave “Sweetback” an X rating, Mr. Van Peebles enticed his target Black audience with movie posters and other advertisements that proclaimed the film “RATED X BY AN ALL-WHITE JURY.”

He persuaded Black DJs to promote “Sweetback,” which was dedicated “to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of The Man.” He said the Black Panther Party endorsed it as “required viewing,” and Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton called it “the first truly revolutionary Black film” because its brazen hero gets away with roughing up the police.

Civil rights activist and former NAACP chairman Julian Bond told the New York Times in 2002 that watching “Sweetback,” was “just like, ‘Wow!’ You’d just never seen anything like it before. . . . You’d never seen a black guy beat up the police and get away.”

In its defiance of all convention, “Sweetback” served as a lodestar to underfunded but visionary independent moviemakers. It has been cited as an influence on directors as varied as Quentin Tarantino, Warrington Hudlin and Spike Lee, and it awakened studio executives to the commercial might of Black ticket buyers.

An immediate result, much to Mr. Van Peebles’s revulsion, was the “blaxploitation” genre of low-budget, sexed-up, violent action films such as “Super Fly” (1972) and “Foxy Brown” (1974) that removed any political messaging and left the flesh and flash.

'Political manifesto'

“The formula of ‘Sweetback’ was preempted — taken and perverted and watered down and used in a counterrevolutionary way,” he told Interview magazine. He grumbled that such films, no matter how many Black faces appeared in them, were studio products financed by the White Hollywood establishment.

“Sweetback,” by contrast, was what he called a “take-no-prisoners political manifesto” made expressly for a Black audience, from the stick-it-to-the-Man imagery to the funky title. “In ‘whitese,’ ” Mr. Van Peebles joked to Newsday, “it would be called ‘The Ballad of the Indomitable Sweetback.’ ”

The film contained a message about the dire state of race relations but also provided a vehicle for graphic sex scenes. Perhaps indulging a storyteller’s penchant for hyperbole, he said he contracted gonorrhea during one sequence, received directors guild compensation for being “hurt on the job” and used the money to buy enough film to complete the movie.

To critics, Mr. Van Peebles’s reputation teetered on a cultural precipice.

He was hailed by some as a filmmaking pioneer with boundless imagination and derided by others as a misogynist with a shaky camera, odd lighting ­choices and storytelling techniques that were more exuberant than coherent. (He called polished production values the stuff of “technical colonization” imposed by White Hollywood executives.)

Donald Bogle, a film historian and scholar of the depiction of Black people on-screen, told the Times in 1973 that “Sweetback” was a rejoinder to the long tradition of films in which African American performers were relegated to servile roles or used for comic relief. Their characters, Bogle said, were devoid of sexuality even when — as in the cases of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte — they “have the goods.”

“I think that it was Melvin Van Peebles’s great gift, great insight, that he realized the Black mass audience wanted a viable, sexual, assertive, arrogant Black male hero,” Bogle said. “ ‘Sweetback’ is a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that fully plays into the needs of the Black mass audience.”

For all the attention that Mr. Van Peebles received, he struggled to parlay his celebrity — or notoriety — into further directorial success. At least one of his films was shelved for lack of interest by distributors, and he was replaced as director of the Richard Pryor film “Greased Lightning” (1977) after clashing with producers.

“If you’re smart and White, you’re considered a shrewd businessman,” Mr. Van Peebles told the Times. “If you’re Black, you’re considered a militant troublemaker. In the eyes of the Hollywood establishment, I was the character of Sweetback.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Van Peebles had gained recognition for his music, including the 1969 album “Brer Soul,” a collection of jazzy-funk song-poems that some critics have called a precursor to rap. He plowed profits from “Sweetback” into two Broadway musicals for which he wrote the book, music and lyrics: “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” (1971), featuring musical vignettes set in a Black ghetto; and “Don’t Play Us Cheap!” (1972), about a Harlem house party disrupted by the Devil’s minions.

The plays, which drew mixed reviews, earned Tony nominations for best book, and Mr. Van Peebles received a nomination for best original score for “Ain’t Supposed to Die.” With his film prospects at a nadir, he pivoted to writing books and teleplays.

He also spent about five years working for Wall Street brokerage houses. That unlikely turn came after he made a wager with a friend, a prominent dealer in precious metals, over the return on a real estate deal. Under the terms of the bet, when Mr. Van Peebles lost, he had to go to work as a floor trader. He wrote a primer, “Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market” (1986), in which he likened market speculation to Atlantic City games of chance. Kirkus Reviews called it an “often impudent but prudent text.”

Speaking to Black Enterprise magazine, he explained how Melvin Van Peebles, the cinematic provocateur of the 1970s, could become Melvin Van Peebles, the cigar-smoking, capitalist stock trader of the 1980s.

“The public image is only the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The bedrock is my entrepreneurial self. At that level, there’s not really much difference between financing plays and movies and trading on Wall Street.”

Chicago to blue yonder

Melvin Van Peebles — Van was his middle name at birth — was born on Chicago’s South Side on Aug. 21, 1932, and grew up in the suburb of Phoenix, Ill.

He said his father, who owned a tailor shop in a rough neighborhood, put him to work at the store at 10 and taught him to fend for himself on the street, selling unclaimed clothes for a percentage of the profits. His mother, meanwhile, encouraged his burgeoning interest in art history, hoping that he would be the first in the family to attend college.

He received a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953. As a student, he was enrolled in Air Force ROTC, and after graduation, he spent three years as a flight navigator. He married Maria Marx, a White college classmate (“I figured someone should get all the dough the Air Force would pay if I died”), and struggled as a painter in Mexico before settling in San Francisco.

He said airlines wouldn’t hire him for flying jobs, and he supported his family as a trolley gripman. Out of boredom, he spent hours thinking up movie and book ideas. As Melvin Van, he wrote an ode to the city’s cable-car system, “The Big Heart” (1957).

After being fired by the transit company — he claimed that his boss didn’t want him to succeed as an author — he wrote, directed and edited two short films and took them to Hollywood. The only offers he received, he said, involved a mop and a broom.

In 1959, he packed up his family — which included two children, Mario and Megan — and, on the G.I. Bill, enrolled at a university in the Netherlands to study astronomy. He adopted the surname “Van Peebles” to appear Dutch and performed briefly with the Dutch National Theater.

As his marriage and finances disintegrated, he moved alone to Paris and supported himself as a gigolo while contributing to the satirical anarchist magazine Hara-Kiri.

After Mr. Van Peebles learned that the French government had a policy of supporting authors who wanted to film their own work, he wrote novels and applied for a director’s license and the grants that would come with it.

“I knew they really meant a French citizen, but they didn’t call it precise,” he told the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer. “So I said, ‘I write in French, therefore I am a French writer. Right?’ ”

With a Gallic shrug, a bureaucrat passed him a director’s card, and he turned one of his books, “La Permission,” into his debut feature, “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” (1968), about a bittersweet affair between a Black American soldier (Harry Baird) and a White Frenchwoman (Nicole Berger).

Its jumpy editing style, then in vogue among French New Wave directors, helped it become the official French entry at the San Francisco Film Festival. “Three-Day Pass” won support from such influential reviewers as Judith Crist.

“My film became the critics’ choice at the festival, but they didn’t know I was an American, let alone Black, and that created a furor, because there were no Black directors in the States,” Mr. Van Peebles later told the trade publication Billboard.

Mr. Van Peebles landed a contract with Columbia Pictures to direct “Watermelon Man” (1970), a Herman Raucher-written satire about a bigoted White insurance salesman who wakes one morning to find that he is Black. Mr. Van Peebles said that studio executives wanted a White movie star — such as Jack Lemmon — to play the role in blackface but that he persuaded them to use Black comedian Godfrey Cambridge in whiteface.

“Three-quarters of the film the guy is Black,” he told the Times. “I said, ‘Let’s have a Black guy in white face.’ Their reaction was, ‘Is that possible?’ The king can play a valet but can the valet play a king? They didn’t understand the racist implication of this question.”

“Watermelon Man” drew scathing reviews for its haphazard blending of rage and puerile comedy. Mr. Van Peebles told The Washington Post that he took the job mainly for the $70,000 compensation, which helped him finance “Sweetback” — a film he could call completely his own after no studio would back it.

As he continued his wide-ranging career, Mr. Van Peebles directed the music video for the Whodini song “Funky Beat” (1986). He collected an Emmy for outstanding writing in a children’s special for the CBS drama “The Day They Came to Arrest the Book” (1987), based on Nat Hentoff’s novel about the banning of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at a high school.

His daughter, Megan Van Peebles, died in 2006. In addition to his son, Mario, survivors include two other children, Max Van Peebles and Marguerite Van Peebles; and 11 grandchildren.

Mr. Van Peebles teamed with Mario to make several films, notably “Panther” (1995), based on Melvin’s novel about the Black Panther Party in Oakland, Calif. And his play “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” has been slated for a revival next year.

Mr. Van Peebles also wrote and narrated the documentary “Classified X” (1998), a rumination on his quest for authenticity in an industry — and a world — where Black consciousness “had been colonized by images of Black humiliation, marginality, subservience, impotence and criminality that are ubiquitous in mainstream American cinema.”

“Sweetback” struck like a lightning bolt, he said, because it “didn’t owe its allegiance to anything in the past.”

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