Kael, Pauline. "II. Raising Kane." The New Yorker 27 Feb. 1971: 44.
(The Kael essay was published in two parts, 3a. is the first half as published in the February 20th, 1971 issue of the New Yorker, and 3b. is the second half as published in the February 27th, 1971 issue. Therefore, the annotations for the two parts are the same because they explain a single source.)
In this almost book-length essay, Pauline Kael provides a comprehensive and incredibly detailed examination of the film Citizen Kane. She asserts the premise that the risky subject material and the genius of those involved in the filmmaking process lead to a film that is as successful and real today as it was on it’s opening night in 1941. Her glowing review begins by addressing the film techniques that separate Citizen Kane from other movies of it’s time. It then moves to discuss the affect that the William Randolph Hearst controversy had on the success of the movie, concluding that Hearst was quite unable to limit the value of the film. However, she does note that RKO’s delay in releasing the film made it seem to have questionable popularity, which effectively reduced the popularity of the film. The bulk of Kael’s essay is dedicated to exploring how script-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz fits into the making of Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz is ignored by most reviews of the film, (largely due to direct actions taken by Welles) but Kael provides convincing arguments that it is Mankiewicz who deserves credit for some of the genius we often give to Welles. Her portrayal of Welles is not always complimentary as she reveals her view that Mankiewicz was treated very unfairly by Welles and the film community as a whole. Finally, Kael goes on to explain many of the symbols and mysteries contained in Citizen Kane. It is impossible to describe all that Kael covers in Raising Kane because it is both deep and comprehensive, but these are a representative sample of the arguments she defends.
Most applicable to my thesis is Keal’s discussion of the meaning of ‘Rosebud’. Notably, she highlights Orson Welles own conflicts about what to make of the mysterious symbol. She cites a discussion Welles has with Mrs. Alexander in which, when asked about the meaning of ‘Rosebud,’ he responds by saying that “My dear Mrs. Alexander, I don’t know, I’m making it up as I go along.” This quote illustrates that, concerning ‘Rosebud,’ Welles had to go through the same search for meaning that audiences must still undertake today. Again, this sort of assertion created a need for Welles to explain that he did indeed have and know a purpose for the symbol 'Rosebud.'
This article describes the aspirations and challenges faced by writer/director Melvin Van Peebles in making his controversial independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. He declares his main desire for the film was to “get the Man’s foot out of [his] ass…and out of all our black asses” – in fact he originally titled the film How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass. With that idea in mind, he made a list of requirements necessary to get his message across effectively, keeping in mind his limitations (both economic and social).
Using the basic story of a black man getting “the Man’s” foot out of his ass, Van Peebles listed “givens” in order to prevent himself from writing something he wouldn’t be able to shoot. These givens include: no copping out (a victorious film for the black man), high production value (must look as good as white independent films and thus must be in color), wall-to-wall action and entertainment (to prevent boredom and create a commercial power base so “the Man” might actually fund him if it seemed profitable), half the crew must be third world people, tight security (due to the controversy he was causing), and a flexible script to deal with the unknown variables such as caliber of actors/crew.
With this list of givens, Van Peebles describes his advantages over the major Hollywood studios in this subject matter and the possibilities he could utilize. He understood the black pulse but by seizing it, he might hurt the black cause as well. Since he realized that the more action he had, the more the mainstream audience would let him get away with, he decided to pack “enough action for three movies”, overuse screen effects, and create musical montages as space-filler. Thus, through his economic and social constraints, Van Peebles describes the process in developing Sweetback’s characteristics, characteristics that would become the standard in Hollywood’s blaxploitation wave that followed.
This article is very interesting and valuable in that it describes not only the pre-production process of the film but how those factors and considerations created the style that Hollywood would eventually emulate in their blaxploitation wave - as seen in films such as Shaft and Superfly later that year. As many directors often dream about working outside the confines and restrictions of their studio heads, this shows how one might approach such a project and the precautions one might take. It is a great example of the full auteur process in a manner that deals with a subject matter and goal not necessarily acceptable to all people.
Candy, Vincent. "Sweetback': Does It Exploit Injustice :' It's a Funny Old World'. " New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 9 May 1971,D1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2004). ProQuest. University of Pennsylvania Library, Philadelphia, PA. 9 Apr. 2008 .
Candy describes a scene from the movie where a “jaunty black shoeshine man polishes the shoe of his white customer by riding it with the seat of his pants…the white man knows he’s beign made a fool of, and yet his shoes are being shined.” By mocking the white man and himself, Candy argues that the shoeshine main maintains a “franchise on his own sovereign independce.” The film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song however, is about a black man not content with wearing a "darky grin" while engaging in subservient role-playing.
After describing the basic elements of the plot – Sweetback kills two cops and goes on a run to escape to the Mexican border - Candy describes this journey as intolerable not only due to Sweetback’s hardships along the way (including a run-in with some not-so-friendly Hells' Angels), but also due to the “visual style that substitutes film school technical complexities…for dramatic content.” The visual style of montages, wipes, and effects that would become a staple of the blaxploitation films to follow help disorient the viewer from fully immersing themselves into the scene. However, Candy is so disoriented by it that it undermines the rest of the film for him.
While this is a scathing review of what is now seen as a revolutionary independent low-budget film, it is not without its merits. Ultimately, Candy is comparing Van Peebles, not his character “Sweetback”, to the shoeshine man, performing this dance that somehow liberates himself while playing off the negative stereotypes that have plagued his race in America for hundreds of years. Given the fact that this review was made immediately following the film, while America was still entrenched in racial tensions, his non-flattering assessment is both sensible and understandable. However, by reducing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song to such simple and absolute terms, Candy is ignoring the more important historical context of this film, a context that can perhaps only be realized through the power of hindsight.
Smiley, Tavis. "Melvin Van Peebles". Tavis Smiley. PBS. 27 May 2004. .
After some bantering where Melvin reveals he is actually “Sir Melvin” (“brother from the south side of Chicago has been knighted”), Tavis Smiley begins the interview with Melvin Van Peebles and his son Mario. Tavis asks Mario what it was like growing up in the shadow of his father, who responds saying that Melvin “never though being successful would make him forget his blackness…who he is.” They discuss Melvin growing up in an institution/industry where he is “mad at the system but not mad at the people.” Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was therefore an indictment of the system but not necessarily everyone who functions within that system. Melvin acknowledges that all the film unions were all-white and he sought to make a film that utilizes people of all races in spite of the singular racial perspective portrayed in Sweetback. Next they talk about Mario’s film New Jack City (1991) and Mario confides that since the studio heads are all white, it’s tough to pitch a movie with complex non-white characters. More often than not, studio heads use black characters in simple way (i.e. comic relief or subservience). Thus, most of the Van Peebles’ films are done by racially mixed crews and funded by black producers. They move on to Mario losing his virginity on screen in Sweetback’s beginning at 13 years old, which Mario says was a great experience (he kept asking for retakes). The conversation continues about the paternal link between Melvin, Mario, and now Mario’s kids in his recent biopic of his father, Baadasssss (2003). After discussing how they make due with limited resources and time (Sweetback was shot in 19 days “without technology), they finish by talking about how to promote a controversial movie nobody wants to advertise.
This interview was very interesting to read because it shed light not only on some of the feelings behind the controversial production of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but also illustrated the father-son relationship between Melvin and Mario Van Peebles. Sweetback is a film that is meant to affect the younger generation, instilling them with a sense of pride and refusal to tolerate intolerance. As this interview demonstrates, Melvin instilled his son with a sense of purpose and duty, not only to his family and race, but to under-privileged, under-utilized film crews as well. Although the character of Sweetback ultimately becomes a loner, it was the production of that film that brought people together in order to challenge society and the Hollywood system with new, provocative images and stories. As Melvin said, it was the system, not the people, that needed to be directly confronted.
Corliss, Richard. "The 25 Most Important Films on Race: Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)." Time Magazine Online. 04 Feb. 2008. . New York: 2008.
In a listing about the 25 most important films on race, Richard Corliss arrives at Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. This time, over 35 years after its release, its context and place in film history is no clearer now than in 1971. While the Black Panthers used it as a mandatory recruiting video (a la the KKK with Birth of a Nation), Ebony Magazine denounced it. The wide range of responses and reactions seemed to be all on one extreme side of the spectrum or the other. However, Corliss acknowledges three matters that are undebateable: nothing had been seen like it before in a commercial theater, it "instantly shifted the dominant tone of black films from liberal to anarchist, from uplifting message movies to fables of ghetto smarts and stickin' it to the man," and it was an "out-of-nowhere hit," creating the new genre of blaxploitation. Corliss explains why Van Peebles himself was the anti-Sidney Poitier, a black hero that was too threatening and sexual to be allowed on screen. Van Peebles didn't care what whites felt about his film and that liberated him in a way that no Hollywood studio film had ever been liberated. The film even used child pornography (with Van Peebles' son Mario having sex with an adult woman) and because of all these factors, Corliss concludes it is impossible to analyze without some sort of bias.
This article is important and relevant because it finally places Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song into its several historical contexts without needing to provide clarity over which context is "right". Corliss understands the polarization of views this film has caused, as evidenced in the opening paragraph: "Libaration or exploitation? Radical politics or violent nihilism? Mature sexuality or child pornography? Modernist narrative or incoherent narrative? Trailblazer or piece of crap?" All of those views are right in a way, because when reviewing a film, the subjective experience is all that matters. You can never be wrong about an opinion on a film, so long as you have some piece of evidence to back up your claims. With an abrasive, in-your-face movie like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, it seems that everybody was caught off guard and gave their instinctual reaction. In a cinematic climate where critical reviews and trailers create expectations that almost predetermine a filmgoers' reaction to an extent, the release of this film, outside the traditional Hollywood avenues, created a genuine experience for a variety of viewers. As one might expect, the reaction was just as varied.
This is a very interesting analysis, especially given the fact that it came so soon after the film was released. Riley is in tune with the angry, young Black Nationalists that this film caters to and describes exactly which chords it hits and why. However, the bias of this article is quite evident. Riley seems so excited to be reviewing a film made by a black filmmaker that he has trouble criticizing even the most insignificant of fallacies. His enthusiasm is evident of that of the black populace immediately after the film’s release, and although that enthusiasm will dissipate in the coming years, this article serves as a good barometer to measure the initial impact of Sweetback on the commercial public and film industry.