This review is very important to understand the timeline, context, and ultimate consequences of Hollywood’s blaxploitation movement, started by the independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The Hollywood films that followed, like 1971's Superfly and Shaft, portrayed a black urban fantasy. In the case of Superfly, it is a heroic cocaine dealer who ends up using his “ghetto smarts” to outsmart “the Man” while confiding his despair in accepting that the only way for him to “make it” is to sell coke. As his partner says, “it’s the hand ‘the Man’ dealt us.” In the case of Shaft, there is the idea of an in-your-face sexual, cocky, hip black private detective that is embraced by white culture as the new black "answer." Comical to white viewers but dangerously desireable to black viewers. Both films – and the blaxploitation genre in general – exploit the black fantasy that with the “ghetto smarts” and current culture of drug dealing and other criminal activity at their disposal, they can outsmart and ultimately defeat “the Man.” Sweetback helped create and perpetuate this myth with a black folk hero that kills two cops who were beating up a young Black Panther that eventually emerges victorious when he escapes to Mexico. Are we supposed to cheer? The exploitation of this black fantasy – blaxploitation – has created this myth that ultimately holds down black urban culture. When violence against authority and drug dealing are glorified with a sense of pride, the actual impact on the community takes a back seat to the fantasy of the ghetto revolution. Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City ironically shows the damage on the black community from his father’s ghetto lifestyle glorification. It shows how the liberating feeling of making a blaxploitation film paradoxically imprisoned millions of urban youths in a fantasy that has no bearing or practical use in the real world.
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.
Bogle, Donald. "Chapter 8: The 1970s Bucks and a Black Movie Boom." Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. Ed. 4. New York: Continuum, 2001. 231-241.
Chapter 8. The 1970s Bucks and a Black Movie Boom (p. 231-266; 231-241 relevant to film)
Film critic and NYU/Penn professor Donald Bogle (whom Spike Lee refers to as the top historian of African American film) segues from a chapter about the rise of black militants into the cinematic expression of that popular African American attitude. He recreates the setting of the early 1970s (Vietnam protests, youth movement, Black Nationalism), yet complains that the old same stereotypes “dressed in new garb to look modern, hip, provocative, and politically ‘relevant’” keep appearing.
The early 1970s marked the “age of the buck”, started by white filmmakers until it is fully explored without Hollywood hindrance by Melvin Van Peebles, the “black movie director and folk hero”, and his film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. After a short Melvin Van Peebles biography, he summarizes the plot of Sweetback, stressing the point that Sweetback does indeed escape the pursuit of the law, meeting “violence with violence in order to triumph over the corrupt white establishment.” This appeals not only to the black audience but to an emerging, revolutionary young white audience as well. The character of Sweetback answers the black public’s call for a serious, sexually assertive black protagonist. After years of asexual characters such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, often relegated to subservience and/or comic relief rather than assert themselves against the establishment, Sweetback actually stands up to “the Man”.
The reception of this movie, as Bogle notes, was mixed in spite of the overwhelming commercial success. The older black generation saw it as a “daydream of triumph” while the young militants saw it as a call to revolution. Since Van Peebles made the film under the pretense of pornography, he had pretty much free reign during production and only really felt the wrath of the white establishment during distribution and eventually, public backlash. However, Bogle notes that even though this film seemed revolutionary, at the heart was the same old brutal black buck, f*cking his way out of situations with black and white women and frequently resorting to violence as a means of escape and triumph. His separation even from white counter-culturists like the Hells’ Angels in the film heeded Black Nationalist calls for separatism, striking an urban chord with its depiction of the ghetto. Bogle confides, however, that although the ghetto pimp is glamorized as the protagonist, the film “fails to explain the social conditions that made the pimp such an important figure.” Ultimately, he decides that the film is more of a social documentary than a traditional motion picture, displaying a snapshot of that tense period in race relations, ultimately formulized later that year by Hollywood's Shaft and Superfly into a more film-like structure.
Bogle is accurate in his description of the film's reception and relevance. Although he acknowledges the historical significance of the film, he also notes that it is widely misinterpreted and received over a broad spectrum of opinions. The use of the stereotypical brutal black buck as the protagonist in Sweetback undermines the film's "revolutionary" categorization, but through the overuse of action and "film school aesthetics" applied in the editing room, a profitable genre was born.
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.