Skip to main content

Melvin Van Peebles - An Obituary

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

 

ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Big Gold Dreams – A Story of Scottish Independent Music 1977-1989

Disc 1 1. THE REZILLOS (My Baby Does) Good Sculptures (12/77)  2. THE EXILE Hooked On You (8/77) 3. DRIVE Jerkin’ (8/77) 4. VALVES Robot Love (9/77) 5. P.V.C. 2 Put You In The Picture (10/77) 6. JOHNNY & THE SELF ABUSERS Dead Vandals (11/77) 7. BEE BEE CEE You Gotta Know Girl (11/77) 8. SUBS Gimme Your Heart (2/78) 9. SKIDS Reasons (No Bad NB 1, 4/78) 10. FINGERPRINTZ Dancing With Myself (1/79)  11. THE ZIPS Take Me Down (4/79) 12. ANOTHER PRETTY FACE All The Boys Love Carrie (5/79)  13. VISITORS Electric Heat (5/79) 14. JOLT See Saw (6/79) 15. SIMPLE MINDS Chelsea Girl (6/79) 16. SHAKE Culture Shock (7/79) 17. HEADBOYS The Shape Of Things To Come (7/79) 18. FIRE EXIT Time Wall (8/79) 19. FREEZE Paranoia (9/79) 20. FAKES Sylvia Clarke (9/79) 21. TPI She’s Too Clever For Me (10/79) 22. FUN 4 Singing In The Showers (11/79) 23. FLOWERS Confessions (12/79) 24. TV21 Playing With Fire (4/80) 25. ALEX FERGUSSON Stay With Me Tonight (1980) 1. THE REZILL

Losing Touch With My Mind - Psychedelia in Britain 1986-1990

DISC 1 1. THE STONE ROSES   -  Don’t Stop 2. SPACEMEN 3   -  Losing Touch With My Mind (Demo) 3. THE MODERN ART   -  Mind Train 4. 14 ICED BEARS   -  Mother Sleep 5. RED CHAIR FADEAWAY  -  Myra 6. BIFF BANG POW!   -  Five Minutes In The Life Of Greenwood Goulding 7. THE STAIRS  -  I Remember A Day 8. THE PRISONERS  -  In From The Cold 9. THE TELESCOPES   -  Everso 10. THE SEERS   -  Psych Out 11. MAGIC MUSHROOM BAND  -  You Can Be My L-S-D 12. THE HONEY SMUGGLERS  - Smokey Ice-Cream 13. THE MOONFLOWERS  -  We Dig Your Earth 14. THE SUGAR BATTLE   -  Colliding Minds 15. GOL GAPPAS   -  Albert Parker 16. PAUL ROLAND  -  In The Opium Den 17. THE THANES  -  Days Go Slowly By 18. THEE HYPNOTICS   -  Justice In Freedom (12" Version) 1. THE STONE ROSES    Don’t Stop ( Silvertone   ORE   1989) The trip didn’t quite start here for what sounds like Waterfall played backwards on The Stone Roses’ era-defining eponymous debut album, but it sounds

Edinburgh Rocks – The Capital's Music Scene in the 1950s and Early 1960s

Edinburgh has always been a vintage city. Yet, for youngsters growing up in the shadow of World War Two as well as a pervading air of tight-lipped Calvinism, they were dreich times indeed. The founding of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 and the subsequent Fringe it spawned may have livened up the city for a couple of weeks in August as long as you were fans of theatre, opera and classical music, but the pubs still shut early, and on Sundays weren't open at all. But Edinburgh too has always had a flipside beyond such official channels, and, in a twitch-hipped expression of the sort of cultural duality Robert Louis Stevenson recognised in his novel, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a vibrant dance-hall scene grew up across the city. Audiences flocked to emporiums such as the Cavendish in Tollcross, the Eldorado in Leith, The Plaza in Morningside and, most glamorous of all due to its revolving stage, the Palais in Fountainbridge. Here the likes of Joe Loss and Ted Heath broug