Melvin Van Peebles – Filmmaker, actor, composer, playwright, novelist
Born August 21, 1932; died September 21, 2021
Melvin Van Peebles, who has died aged 89, was a filmmaker, writer, and renaissance man, whose film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), gave voice to contemporary African American experience in a way that had been little seen previously. Despite industry resistance to it being made at all, Van Peebles wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film, as well as composing its soundtrack. His tenacity paid off, and after hustling it into cinemas, the film make around $14 million at the box office. It also kickstarted a wave of independent features made by and starring black talents who more often than not had been previously relegated to bit part status.
The so-called blaxploitation era briefly changed all that, with the films produced acquiring a cult status that influenced future generations of film-makers, from Spike Lee to Quentin Tarantino. Van Peebles remained ambivalent about much that followed in Sweet Sweetback’s wake, and his film possessed a political heart that remains pertinent beyond its groovy soundtrack and stylistic chutzpah later fetishised by 1970s revivalism.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song told the story of the film’s eponymous hustler, who goes on the run after witnessing racist white police officers assault a member of the Black Panthers. ‘This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man’ heralded the film’s trailer, while real life Black Panther Huey P. Newton hailed Sweetback as ‘The first truly revolutionary Black film’.
Sweetback was rejected by the studio who initially gave its director a three picture deal. Van Peebles funded Sweetback himself, helped by a loan from Bill Cosby, and shot it over nineteen days. As Spike Lee put it later, it was ‘An example of how to make a film… distribute it yourself, and most important, get paid’.
This sense of self-determination permeated everything Van Peebles did. The same year as Sweetback, he wrote the book and score to Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. This stage musical used spoken word, funk, jazz and blues in a series of monologues on the black urban experience in a style that pointed the way for rap and hip hop. The show ran on Broadway for nine months, and was nominated for seven Tony awards.
Van Peebles had developed his own musical and vocal style on his debut album, Brer Soul (1968), and released several other records during the 1970s. In the 1980s, he took an even more maverick turn, when he became an options trader on the American Stock Exchange. He later wrote about it in Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market. He continued to make films, both as director and actor, and wrote novels, plays and musicals. Other stage works included Don’t Play Us Cheap! (1972), made into a film the same year, Reggae: A Musical Revelation, and Waltz of the Stork, filmed as Confessionsofa Ex-DoofusItchyFooted Mutha (2008).
As a screenwriter, he penned Panther (1995), about the rise of the Black Panther movement. The film was directed by his son, Mario, who had played Sweet Sweetback as a child, and later played his father in the biographical Baadasssss! (2003),which dramatised the struggles to make his most famous film.
Melvin Peebles was born in Chicago, Illinois to Marion and Edwin Peebles. His farther was a tailor on the south side of the city, and by the time he was ten, he was working in his father’s shop and selling old clothes on the street. He attended Thornton Township high school, and graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a B.A. in literature, before joining the United States Air Force.
While working as a cable car grip man in San Francisco, he recalled a customer suggesting he should become a filmmaker. His first book, The Big Heart (1957), was credited to Melvin Van. Featuring photographs by Ruth Bernhard, the book focused on his experiences on the cable cars. He made his first short film, Pickup Men for Herrick, the same year.
With Hollywood uninterested in his work, he moved to the Netherlands, where he became Van Peebles. Before that, he met Amos Vogel, who screened his short works at his New York based avant-garde film club, Cinema 16. In France, Van Peebles wrote novels and plays, and became editor of the short-lived French edition of Mad magazine. He based his debut feature, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967), on his French language novel, La Permission.
Presuming him to be a European auteur, Hollywood finally bit, and Van Peebles’ second feature, Watermelon Man (1970), told the story of a racist white man who wakes up black. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song followed.
Van Peebles’ passing came as the New York Film Festival programmed a fiftieth anniversary screening of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. A 2022 Broadway revival of Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, with his son Mario on board as a producer, will go ahead as scheduled.
“Dad knew that Black images matter,” his son said in a statement released following his father’s passing. “We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free.”
He is survived by three children; Mario and Max, to his former wife Maria Marx, and Marguerite, from another relationship. His daughter Megan, also to Marx, predeceased him in 2006. He is also survived by eleven grandchildren.
The Herald, October 6th 2021