Hollywood rarely repaid the favor. No one understood this better the Melvin Van Peebles, who died this week at 89 and who overcame every imaginable obstacle Hollywood placed in front of Black directors. Forced by racism to make movies independent of the studio system, Van Peebles scrounged and scraped together the funds, the talent and the self-promotion to become the most important independent Black filmmaker in the generation after World War II. In doing so, he paved the way for many household names to follow.
Born in Chicago in 1932, Van Peebles attended tiny Ohio Wesleyan University, where he showed an eccentric bent and a fondness for astronomy and painting. By the late 1950s, he was driving a taxi in San Francisco and learning photography in his spare time. The photography inched him into making short films. He could not shake the wild idea that Hollywood might like his work. Everyone laughed at him.
Like James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Josephine Baker before him, Van Peebles then skipped off to France, where the climate was more welcoming for Black artists. Once there, he found that the French New Wave filmmakers — Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard among them — fascinated and inspired him.
With a grant, Van Peebles adapted one of his own novels, “La Permission,” into a full-length film. It concerned the Paris wanderings of a Black soldier and an interracial affair. The film was screened at the 1967 San Francisco International Film Festival, where it had been retitled, “The Story of a Three-Day Pass.” It was the first film released in the United States and directed by a Black filmmaker since Oscar Micheaux’s “The Betrayal” in 1948.
Van Peebles next made “Watermelon Man,” about a bigoted White laborer in Los Angeles who wakes up one day and realizes he has turned into a Black man and must journey through the haze of Black Power, police brutality, hippiedom, sex and debauchery.
“Watermelon Man” had moderate success, and Hollywood loves success more than anything. Columbia Pictures offered Van Peebles a three-film contract, unprecedented for a Black director at that time. But his next idea for a film — about a revolutionary-minded cad named Sweetback, bedding White women and taking on police brutality — was too much for studio executives to stomach.
When Van Peebles decided to try to make the movie himself, Hollywood chortled. He had no financing. The film had no stars. On a hilariously tight budget, Van Peebles decided he’d play the role of Sweetback himself. When word of that casting got out, there was more laughter from the back lots. Van Peebles had to borrow the last $50,000 to finish the film.
“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” opened in 1971 at only two theaters, one in Detroit and the other in Atlanta. The Motion Picture Association of America gave it an X-rating, the kiss of death. Van Peebles hopped a plane into Detroit, where he held a news conference. “I charge that your film rating body has no right to tell the Black community what it may or may not see,” Van Peebles told reporters. “Should the rest of the community submit to your censorship that is its business, but white standards shall no longer be imposed on the Black community.” The reporters shook their heads, bemused.
Still, the film broke the house record at Detroit’s Grand Circus Theater in the first week. Black people praised the Van Peebles-composed soundtrack, which featured some young musicians from Chicago who called themselves Earth, Wind & Fire.
And now — with the box office rising — it was Van Peebles’s turn to laugh.
In Atlanta, he printed up some leaflets: “Rated X by an all-white jury.” Word of mouth kept spreading; the Black press, dependable when it came to Black cinema, paid attention. Finally, theaters elsewhere began booking the film. “It was beyond any thought that someone could defy white authority and live,” Van Peebles said.
The reviews? They were terrible. But Van Peebles had created a sensational moment in cinema: “Sweetback” had grossed $15 million in its first year and would usher in a revolutionary period in Black films, which came to be known as the Blaxploitation era. The films may have been quickly made — and without the resources that White filmmakers often enjoyed — but they elevated unknown actors such as Richard Pryor, Pam Grier and Ron O’Neal into new possibilities.
Just as important, the Van Peebles do-it-yourself playbook would help other independent filmmakers — Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and Lee Daniels, to name a few — find the courage to open doors that had been locked for too long.