" We must whup Mr. Tooth Decay "
— Muhammad Ali, When We Were Kings

MRQE Top Critic

Muscle Shoals

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

Sponsored links

The 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song by Melvin Van Peebles launched the “blaxploitation” movement in American cinema. I was too young to know about it in 1971, but when Criterion released it on home video I watched it. I was unimpressed by the movie, and the DVD didn’t explain why it deserved such a prestigious spot in the Criterion catalogue. What was missing was a historical context in which to frame the movie.

That missing context is exactly what Baadasssss provides.

All in the Family

Mario walks a mile in his father's shoes
Mario walks a mile in his father’s shoes

Mario Van Peebles directs and also portrays his father Melvin in this homage to Melvin’s defining movie. Baadasssss is a dramatic telling of the making of Sweetback. It credits as its source material the book by Melvin on the making of the movie.

Baadasssss is not a documentary, but it occasionally tries to look like one, with the modern actors giving faux interviews for Mario’s camera as though they were the real cast and crew of the 1971 film. Further blurring the line between homage and referent are Khleo Thomas (Holes) playing young Mario and interviews with the actual 1971 figures over the end credits. There’s also a hallucinatory spirit of Sweetback, the character in the 1971 film (played by Mario in costume), who give encouragement to Melvin. This web between real and fake is very elaborate and occasionally distracting. Seeing Mario Van Peebles playing his father yell at an actor playing his younger self is a mind-warping. But usually the movie is engaging enough to pull you right back in.

Another movie released this spring by a son about a father, My Architect, suffers from the close connection between filmmaker and subject; it wrongly assumes that its audience will be as fascinated by the father as the son is. But Mario avoids this trap by telling an engaging and entertaining story. He makes his characters larger than life, which keeps the story from becoming dry and fawning.

Mario doesn’t deserve all the credit. A lot goes to the great cast he’s assembled. Mario himself is a magnetic actor, easily taking center stage. Rainn Wilson, playing friend and producer Bill Harris is a charismatic and enthusiastic sidekick. Add Wilson’s heavyset frame, red hair, and geeky energy, and he calls to mind a less serious Philip Seymour Hoffman. And while the character of Melvin is too obsessed with his movie to have a serious relationship, Joy Bryant brings to life a smart, persistent secretary, and Karimah Westbrook steals the scene as Ginnie, called on at the last minute to do a striptease for the cameras (Melvin led her to believe she was showing up for a kinky date).

Guerilla Filmmaking

Melvin’s guerilla filmmaking tactics are a big part of the context required to appreciate Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and they are also what makes Baadasssss such an entertaining movie. Melvin is a man obsessed. He’d made a successful comedy with Bill Cosby, Watermelon Man, but he was disgusted by the roles Hollywood reserved for black actors. He wanted to make a serious film by and for the black community, and Hollywood (personified Saul Rubinek playing Howie, a simpering producer) wanted nothing to do with it. Instead of giving up, Melvin determined to produce it himself.

The second act is full of great stories about the production. Potential producers flake out, back out, or demand Melvin’s soul in exchange. The actors’ and filmmakers’ unions place too many demands on the production, but the only films allowed to operate outside of union control are pornography, so Melvin’s movie includes several sex scenes and is reported as a blue movie to the industry. An actor hired for his stutter spent weeks correcting his speech, ruining the effect Melvin wanted. His actress backed out, demanding that Melvin find a willing replacement quickly (thus the deceptive phone call to Ginnie). A live gun was discovered in the prop box after two days; luckily nobody was shot. Editing the film, Melvin went blind in one eye. The MPAA gave the movie an X rating, ensuring it couldn’t be advertised in any newspaper, and making theater owners afraid to book it.

Mario makes the production look like the Labors of Hercules. Through it all we root for Mario-as-Melvin, who makes a good, likeable hero. (Melvin reportedly told Mario not to make him “too nice,” which he doesn’t, but he’s still a great character to root for). Refreshingly, nobody is a villain. There are lots of selfish people, the kind you find everywhere. But nobody is evil. If there’s a “villain” it’s the film industry that until then hadn’t made, according to Melvin, any genuine black movies in its 75-year history.

Mario provides a happy ending, and not a gratuitous one, either. Sweetback was the most successful independent movie of 1971. More importantly, he provides a context for Sweetback that the good people at Criterion couldn’t.