Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
|Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Melvin Van Peebles|
Melvin Van Peebles|
|Written by||Melvin Van Peebles|
|Starring||Melvin Van Peebles|
|Music by||Melvin Van Peebles|
|Edited by||Melvin Van Peebles|
|Distributed by||Cinemation Industries|
|Box office||$15.2 million|
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is a 1971 American independent action thriller film written, co-produced, scored, edited, directed by and starring Melvin Van Peebles. His son Mario Van Peebles also appears in a small role, playing the title character as a young boy. It tells the picaresque story of a poor black man on his flight from the white authority.
Van Peebles began to develop the film after being offered a three-picture contract for Columbia Pictures. No studio would finance the film, so Van Peebles funded the film himself, shooting it independently over a period of 19 days, performing all of his own stunts and appearing in several sex scenes, reportedly unsimulated. He received a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby to complete the project. The film's fast-paced montages and jump-cuts were unique features in American cinema at the time. The picture was censored in some markets, and received mixed critical reviews. However, it has left a lasting impression on African-American cinema.
The musical score of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was performed by Earth, Wind & Fire. Van Peebles did not have any money for traditional advertising methods, so he released the soundtrack album prior to the film's release in order to generate publicity. Initially, the film was screened only in two theaters in the United States. It went on to gross $4.1 million at the box office. Huey P. Newton celebrated and welcomed the film's revolutionary implications, and Sweetback became required viewing for members of the Black Panther Party. According to Variety, it demonstrated to Hollywood that films which portrayed "militant" blacks could be highly profitable, leading to the creation of the blaxploitation genre, although critic Roger Ebert did not consider this example of Van Peebles' work to be an exploitation film.
A young African American orphan (Mario Van Peebles) is taken in by the proprietor of a Los Angeles brothel in the 1940s. While working there as a towel boy, he is raped by one of the prostitutes at a young age. The women name him "Sweet Sweetback" in honor of his sexual prowess and large penis. As an adult, Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles) works as a performer in the whorehouse, entertaining customers by performing in a sex show.
One night, a pair of white LAPD officers come in to speak to Sweetback's boss, Beetle (Simon Chuckster). A black man has been murdered, and there is pressure from the black community to bring in a suspect. The police ask permission to arrest Sweetback, blame him for the crime, and then release him a few days later for lack of evidence, in order to appease their superiors. Beetle agrees, and the officers arrest Sweetback. On the way to the police station, the officers also arrest a young Black Panther named Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales). They handcuff him to Sweetback, but when Mu-Mu insults the officers, they take both men out of the car, undo the handcuff from Mu-Mu's wrist, and beat him. In response, Sweetback fashions his handcuffs into a pair of brass knuckles and beats the officers, putting them both into comas.
Sweetback returns to the whorehouse for help, but Beetle refuses out of fear of being arrested himself. As Sweetback leaves, he's arrested and violently interrogated by the police, but escapes when a black revolutionary throws a molotov cocktail at the police car transporting him to the station. He next visits an old girlfriend (Rhetta Hughes), who similarly refuses him aid but agrees to cut his handcuffs off in exchange for sex. Sweetback then asks for help from his priest, but he, too, refuses for fear of the police shutting down the drug rehab center he runs out of the church's attic.
Two police officers torture Beetle for his whereabouts, rendering him deaf by firing a gun beside his ears. As Sweetback continues to evade arrest, pressure mounts on the LAPD to capture him; after uttering a racial slur at a press conference, the police commissioner encourages two black detectives to hunt him down. Later, a now wheelchair-bound Beetle is brought to the morgue to identify a body believed to be Sweetback; he mocks the officers when it turns out to be another man.
Sweetback reunites with Mu-Mu and the pair make their way through South Central Los Angeles towards the United States–Mexico border. Stopping for the night at a seemingly abandoned building, the men discover that it's a safe house for a chapter of the Hell's Angels, whose female president agrees to help them in exchange for sex. Afterwards, the bikers take the men to their club to await the arrival of a member of the East Bay Dragons. In the middle of the night, the club is raided by the police, and Sweetback kills two officers in self-defense. The next morning, the Dragon (John Amos) arrives, but only has room on his motorcycle for one man; Sweetback asks him to take Mu-Mu.
Sweetback pays a hippie to switch clothes with him, distracting the police when they send a helicopter in pursuit of the man through the desert. The police find Sweetback's biological mother, who reveals that Sweetback's birth name is Leroy. As Sweetback approaches the border, the police become desperate, and force a farmer to let them take his hunting dogs to send after Sweetback. The chase concludes in the Tijuana River, where Sweetback kills two of the dogs and escapes into Mexico, swearing to return to "collect some dues".
- Melvin Van Peebles ... Sweetback
- Hubert Scales ... Mu-Mu
- Simon Chuckster ... Beetle
- John Dullaghan ... Commissioner
- West Gale
- Niva Rochelle
- Rhetta Hughes ... Old Girl Friend
- Nick Ferrari
- Ed Rue
- John Amos ... Biker (as Johnny Amos)
- Lavelle Roby
- Ted Hayden
- Mario Van Peebles ... Young Sweetback / Kid (as Mario Peebles)
During production on Watermelon Man for Columbia Pictures, Van Peebles attempted to rewrite the script in order to change it from a comedy poking fun of white liberals into the first black power film. The writer, Herman Raucher, who had based the script on friends of his who expressed liberal sentiments while still holding onto bigoted beliefs, objected to Van Peebles' efforts because he felt that the movie should be a parody of liberal culture. Raucher ultimately exercised a clause in his contract that allowed him to novelize his own script, effectively preventing Peebles from too radically changing the film.
After Watermelon Man proved to be a financial success, Van Peebles was offered a three-picture contract. While the deal was still up in the air, Van Peebles- still wanting to create the first black power film- developed the story for Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. The initial idea for the film did not come clearly to him at first. One day, Van Peebles drove into the Mojave desert, turned off the highway, and drove over the rise of a hill. He parked the car, got out, and squatted down facing the sun. He decided that the film was going to be "about a brother getting the Man's foot out of his ass." Because no studio would finance the film, Van Peebles put his own money into the production, and shot it independently. Van Peebles was given a $50,000 loan by Bill Cosby to complete the film. "Cosby didn't want an equity part," according to Van Peebles. "He just wanted his money back." Van Peebles wound up with controlling ownership of the film. Several actors auditioned for the lead role of Sweetback, but told Van Peebles that they wouldn't do the film unless they were given more dialogue. Van Peebles ended up playing the part himself.
According to Van Peebles, during the first day of shooting, director of photography and head cameraman Bob Maxwell told him he could not mix two different shades of mechanical film lights, because he believed the results would not appear well on film. Van Peebles told him to do it anyway. When he saw the rushes, Maxwell was overjoyed, and Van Peebles did not encounter that issue again during the shoot. Van Peebles shot the film over a period of 19 days in order to avoid the possibility of the cast, most of whom were amateurs, showing on some days with haircuts or clothes different from the prior day. He shot the film in what he referred to as "globs," where he would shoot entire sequences at a time. Because Van Peebles couldn't afford a stunt man, he performed all of the stunts himself, which also included appearing in several unsimulated sex scenes. At one point in the shoot, Van Peebles was forced to jump off a bridge. Bob Maxwell later stated, "Well, that's great, Mel, but let's do it again." Van Peebles ended up performing the stunt nine times. Van Peebles contracted gonorrhea when filming one of the many sex scenes, and successfully applied to the Directors Guild in order to get workers' compensation because he was "hurt on the job." Van Peebles used the money to purchase more film.
Van Peebles and several key crew members were armed because it was dangerous to attempt to create a film without the support of the union. One day, Van Peebles looked for his gun, and failed to find it. Van Peebles found out that someone had put it in the prop box. When they filmed the scene in which Beetle is interrogated by police, who fire a gun next to both of his ears, it was feared that the real gun would be picked up instead of the prop. While shooting a sequence with members of the Hells Angels, one of the bikers told Van Peebles they wanted to leave; Van Peebles responded by telling them they were paid to shoot until the scene was over. The biker took out a knife and started cleaning his fingernails with it. In response, Van Peebles snapped his fingers, and his crewmembers were standing there with rifles. The bikers stayed to shoot the scene.
Van Peebles had received a permit to set a car on fire, but had done so on a Friday; as a result, there was no time to have it filed before shooting the scene. When the scene was shot, a fire truck showed up. This ended up in the final cut of the film.
Van Peebles stated that he approached directing the film "like you do the cupboard when you're broke and hungry: throw in everything eatable and hope to come out on top with the seasoning, i.e., by editing." Van Peebles stated that "story-wise, I came up with an idea, why not the direct approach. ... To avoid putting myself into a corner and writing something I wouldn't be able to shoot, I made a list of the givens in the situation and tried to take those givens and juggle them into the final scenario."
Van Peebles wanted "a victorious film ... where niggers could walk out standing tall instead of avoiding each other's eyes, looking once again like they'd had it." Van Peebles was aware of the fact that films produced by major studios would appear to be more polished than low-budget independently made features, and was determined to make a film that "[looked] as good as anything one of the major studios could turn out."
Van Peebles knew that in order to spread his message, the film "simply couldn't be a didactic discourse which would end up playing ... to an empty theater except for ten or twenty aware brothers who would pat me on the back and say it tells it like it is" and that "to attract the mass we have to produce work that not only instructs but entertains". Van Peebles also wanted to make a film that would "be able to sustain itself as a viable commercial product ... [The Man] ain't about to go carrying no messages for you, especially a relevant one, for free."
Van Peebles wanted half of his shooting crew "to be third world people. ... So at best a staggering amount of my crew would be relatively inexperienced. ... Any type of film requiring an enormous technical sophistication at the shooting stage should not be attempted." Van Peebles knew that gaining financing for the film would not be easy and expected "a great deal of animosity from the film media (white in the first place and right wing in the second) at all levels of filmmaking", thus he had to "write a flexible script where emphasis could be shifted. In short, stay loose."
The film's fast-paced montages and jump-cuts were novel features for an American movie at the time. Stephen Holden from The New York Times commented that the film's editing had "a jazzy, improvisational quality, and the screen is often streaked with jarring psychedelic effects that illustrate Sweetback's alienation." In The 50 Most Influential Black Films: A Celebration of African-American Talent, Determination, and Creativity, author S. Torriano Berry writes that the film's "odd camera angles, superimpositions, reverse-key effects, box and matting effects, rack-focus shots, extreme zooms, stop-motion and step-printing, and an abundance of jittery handheld camera work all helped to express the paranoid nightmare that [Sweetback's] life had become."
Since Van Peebles did not have the money to hire a composer, he composed the film's music score himself. Because he did not know how to read or write music, he numbered all of the keys on a piano so he could remember the melodies. Van Peebles stated that "Most filmmakers look at a feature in terms of image and story or vice versa. Effects and music [...] are strictly secondary considerations. Very few look at film with sound considered as a creative third dimension. So I calculate the scenario in such a way that sound can be used as an integral part of the film."
The film's music was performed by the then-unknown group Earth, Wind & Fire, who were living in a single apartment with hardly any food at the time. Van Peebles' secretary was dating one of the bandmembers, and convinced him to contact them about performing the music for the film. Van Peebles projected scenes from the film as the band performed the music. By alternating hymn-based vocalization and jazz rhythms, Van Peebles created a sound that foreshadowed the use of sampling in hip hop music.
Van Peebles recalls that "music was not used as a selling tool in movies at the time. Even musicals, it would take three months after the release of the movie before they would bring out an album." Because Van Peebles did not have any money for traditional advertising methods, he decided that by releasing a soundtrack album in anticipation of the film's release, he could help build awareness for the film with its music.
Release and alterations
The film was released on April 23, 1971. Melvin Van Peebles stated that "at first, only two theaters in the United States would show the picture: one in Detroit, and one in Atlanta. The first night in Detroit, it broke all the theater's records, and that was only on the strength of the title alone, since nobody had seen it yet. By the second day, people would take their lunch and sit through it three times. I knew that I was finally talking to my audience. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song made thousands of dollars in its first day." The film grossed $15,000,000+ at the box office (about $90 million in 2016 dollars).
After Sweetback received an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, inspiring the advertising tagline "Rated X by an all-white jury", and a theater in Boston cut nine minutes out of the film, Van Peebles stated, "Should the rest of the community submit to your censorship that is its business, but White standards shall no longer be imposed on the Black community." The Region 2 DVD release from BFI Video has the opening sex sequences altered. A notice at the beginning of the DVD states "In order to comply with UK law (the Protection of Children Act 1978), a number of images in the opening sequence of this film have been obscured."
The end of the film was shocking to black viewers who had expected that Sweetback would perish at the hands of the police — a common, even inevitable, fate of black men "on the run" in prior films. Film critic Roger Ebert cited the ending as a reason for the film not to be labeled as an exploitation film. Critical response was mixed. Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times described the film as "a series of stark, earthy vignettes, Van Peebles evokes the vitality, humor, pain, despair and omnipresent fear that is life for so many African-Americans". Stephen Holden in The New York Times called it "an innovative, yet politically inflammatory film." The film website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from a wide range of critics, gives the film a score of 73% "Fresh".
Huey P. Newton, devoting an entire issue of The Black Panther to the film's revolutionary implications, celebrated and welcomed the film as "the first truly revolutionary Black film made [...] presented to us by a Black man." Newton wrote that Sweetback "presents the need for unity among all members and institutions within the community of victims," contending that this is evidenced by the opening credits which state the film stars "The Black Community," a collective protagonist engaged in various acts of community solidarity that aid Sweetback in escaping. Newton further argued that "the film demonstrates the importance of unity and love between Black men and women," as demonstrated "in the scene where the woman makes love to the young boy but in fact baptizes him into his true manhood." The film became required viewing for members of Black Panther Party.
A few months after the publication of Newton's article, Lerone Bennett responded with an essay on the film in Ebony, titled "The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland," in which he discussed the film's "black aesthetic". Bennett argued that the film romanticized the poverty and misery of the ghetto and that "some men foolishly identify the black aesthetic with empty bellies and big bottomed prostitutes." Bennett concluded that the film is "neither revolutionary nor black because it presents the spectator with sterile daydreams and a superhero who is ahistorical, selfishly individualist with no revolutionary program, who acts out of panic and desperation." Bennett described Sweetback's sexual initiation at ten years old as the "rape of a child by a 40-year-old prostitute." Bennett described instances when Sweetback saved himself through the use of his sexual prowess as "emancipation orgasms" and stated that "it is necessary to say frankly that nobody ever fucked his way to freedom. And it is mischievous and reactionary finally for anyone to suggest to black people in 1971 that they are going to be able to screw their way across the Red Sea. Fucking will not set you free. If fucking freed, black people would have celebrated the millennium 400 years ago."
Black nationalist poet and author Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) agreed with Bennett's assessment of the film, stating that it was "a limited, money-making, auto-biographical fantasy of the odyssey of one Melvin Van Peebles through what he considered to be the Black community." The New York Times critic Clayton Riley viewed the film more favorably, commenting on its aesthetic innovation, but stated of the character of Sweetback that he "is the ultimate sexualist in whose seemingly vacant eyes and unrevealing mouth are written the protocols of American domestic colonialism." In another review, Riley explained that "Sweetback, the profane sexual athlete and fugitive, is based on a reality that is Black. We may not want him to exist but he does." Critic Donald Bogle states in a New York Times interview that the film in some ways met the black audience's compensatory needs after years of asexual, Sidney Poitier-type characters and that they wanted a "viable, sexual, assertive, arrogant black male hero." In a compendium about the Museum of Modern Art's film and media collection, curator Steven Higgins describes the film's place in history: "Not since Oscar Micheaux had an African American filmmaker taken such complete control of the creative process, turning out a work so deeply connected to his own personal and cultural reality that he was not surprised when the white critical establishment professed bewilderment...[it] depends less on its story of a superstud running from the police than it does on its disinterest in referencing white culture and its radically new understanding of how style and substance inform each other."
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is considered to be an important film in the history of African American cinema. Hollywood studios were led to attempt to replicate the film's success by producing black-oriented films such as Shaft and Super Fly. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was credited by Variety as leading to the creation of the blaxploitation genre, largely consisting of exploitation films made by white directors. As Spike Lee states, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song gave us all the answers we needed. This was an example of how to make a film (a real movie), distribute it yourself, and most important, get paid. Without Sweetback who knows if there could have been a [...] She's Gotta Have It, Hollywood Shuffle, or House Party?"
Robert Reid-Pharr wrote that "...[Sweetback] was seen (correctly I believe) as the first in a long line of so-called Blaxploitation features..." and goes on to say that Van Peebles was "one of the first artists to bring not only compelling but realistic images of Black Americans into mainstream cinemas, breaking with decades-long traditions ..."
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