Director: Melvin Van Peebles
Production: Yeah; color, 35mm; running time: 97 minutes. Released January 1971, USA. Cost: $500,000. Distributed by Image Entertainment (laserdisc), Xenon Entertainment Group, Direct Cinema Limited (video), and Cinemation Industries.
Producers: Jerry Gross, Melvin Van Peebles; screenplay: Melvin Van Peebles; cinematography: Bob Maxwell; assistant director: Clyde Houston; editor: Melvin Van Peebles; sound editors: John Newman, Luke Wolfram; musical score: Melvin Van Peebles; production manager: Clyde Houston; original music: Earth Wind and Fire; special effects: Cliff Wenger; makeup supervisor: Nora Maxwell.
Melvin Van Peebles (
); Simon Chuckster (
); Hubert Scales (
); John Dullaghan (
); Rhetta Hughes (
Old Girl Friend
); Mario Van Peebles (
); West Gale; Niva Rochelle; Nick Ferrari; Ed Rue; Johnny Amos; Lavelle
Roby; Ted Hayden; Sonja Dunson; Michael Agustus; Peter Russell; Norman
Fields; Ron Prince; Steve Cole; Megan Van Peebles; Joe Tornatore; Mike
Angel; Jeff Goodman; Curt Matson; Marria Evonee; Jon Jacobs; Bill
Kirschner; Vincent Barbi; Chet Norris; Joni Watkins; Jerry Days; John
Allen; Bruce Adams; Brer Soul.
Van Peebles, Melvin, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song , New York, 1971.
Leab, Daniel, From Sambo to Superspade , Boston, 1976.
Guerrero, Ed, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film , Philadelphia, 1993.
James, Darius (a.k.a. Dr. Snakeskin), That's Blaxploitation! Roots of the Baadasssss 'Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury) , New York, 1995.
Martinez, Gerald, Diana Martinez, and Andres Chavez, What It Is . . . What It Was! The Black Film Explosion of the 70s in Words and Pictures , New York, 1998.
Newton, Huey, "He Won't Bleed Me: A Revolutionary Analysis of 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song'," in Black Panther , no. 6, 19 January 1971.
Riley, Clayton, "What Makes Sweetback Run?" in New York Times , May 9, 1971.
Riley, Clayton, "A Black Movie for White Audiences?" in New York Times , July 29, 1971.
Bennett, Jr., Lerone, "The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland," in Ebony , no. 26, September 1971.
Lee, Don, "The Bittersweet of Sweetback, or, Shake Yo Money Maker," in Black World , November 1971.
Broun, Hale, "Is It Better to Be Shaft Than Uncle Tom?" in New York Times , 26 August 1973.
Peavy, Charles, "Black Consciousness and the Contemporary Cinema," in Popular Culture and the Expanding Consciousness , edited by Ray Browne, New York, 1973.
* * *
In 1970, Melvin Van Peebles—along with Gordon Parks and Ossie Davis, one of the first African-American filmmakers to find work in Hollywood—directed a moderately successful serio-comedy entitled Watermelon Man , about a white bigot who suddenly finds himself in the body of a black man. With the $70,000 he earned from that film, plus additional funds from a number of independent sources (including a $50,000 emergency loan from Bill Cosby), Van Peebles was able to finance his new project, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song —so named in order to solicit at least a modicum of coverage from the mainstream media. Desperate to keep production costs to a minimum, he signed a deal with Cinemation Industries, a small distributor specializing in low-budget exploitation fare, and pretended to be making a porno flick, a move which enabled him to hire black and nonunion crewmen. In addition, Van Peebles wrote, directed, scored, and starred in the film, which was not only a sound decision economically, but one which ensured his creative control over every facet of production. Early in 1971, Sweetback opened in the only two theaters (in Detroit and Atlanta) that would agree to show it on a first-run basis. By the end of the year, the film had become the most profitable independent production in history to that point; a sleeper hit across the nation, it would wind up grossing over $15 million.
On the one hand, Sweetback is a film so original in both conception and realization that it managed to defy all traditional genre expectations, thereby satisfying the desire (at least temporarily) for a popular alternative to the dominant Hollywood paradigm. On the other hand, Sweetback is a film that borrows narrative threads and conventions from an assortment of different genres (including the chase film, the biker film, and soft-core porno), thereby proving itself a forerunner of those "postmodern" hybrids so prevalent in theaters today. Finally, Sweetback is a film whose staggering and completely unexpected commercial success ensured its place at the head of an explosion in black-marketed, black-cast, and/or black-directed productions, an explosion that soon went by the ambivalent name of "Blaxploitation cinema."
Sweetback makes manifest its revolutionary pretensions with the following words, which appear at the bottom of the screen before the opening credits role: "This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man." The shocking first scene finds a pre-teen Sweetback (played by Melvin's son, Mario Van Peebles) working in a whorehouse, where a grateful call-girl screams out his nickname during orgasm. Though some viewers found symbolic beauty here (Black Panther leader Huey Newton went so far as to claim that the woman "in fact baptizes [Sweetback] into his true manhood"), others in the African-American community, such as Ebony reviewer Lerone Bennett, Jr., felt that Sweetback's initiation is not so much an "act of love" as "the rape of a child by a 40-year-old prostitute." We next observe (the now grown-up) Sweetback performing as a stud in a black-run sex show in South-Central Los Angeles. On his way to a police station, where he is scheduled to stand in temporarily as a suspect in a widely-publicized murder case, his two guards stop to detain a black activist (Moo Moo, played by Hubert Scales) and proceed to beat the young man senseless. Having seen enough/too much, Sweetback jumps the officers, and nearly kills them with his handcuffs. The rest of the movie tracks our hero's progress as he rides, runs, and hitches his way through decaying cityscapes in a desperate effort at avoiding capture. At one point, Sweetback has his life threatened by a motorcycle gang, and only manages to survive by winning a public sex duel with the female leader. And that is just the beginning; as Ed Guerrero describes it, Sweetback "evades the police by raping a Black woman at knifepoint at a rock concert, spears a cop with a pool cue, kills a number of dogs tracking him, heals himself with his own urine, and bites off the head of a lizard before escaping across the Mexicn border into the desert." The film concludes on an ominous note for white audiences, as the words "A Baadasssss nigger is coming to collect some dues" flash across the screen.
Although neither the popularity of Sweetback at the time of its release, nor its influence on future black filmmakers, can possibly be denied, its legacy—as well as that of Blaxploitation cinema generally— remains a matter of controversy to this day. In interviews, as well as in the promotional book accompanying its theatrical release, Van Peebles called the film "revolutionary," as it tells the story of a "bad nigger" who mounts a successful challenge against the oppressive white power system. This view was supported by Newton, who devoted an entire issue of the Black Panther party newspaper to Sweetback. Bill Cosby has reportedly called the film a work of genius. And a number of African-American intellectuals sought to add Sweetback's name to the roll call of black folkloric heroes in virtue of his prodigious virility. On the negative side, Bennett argued in a scathing review that the film serves to romanticize the poverty and wretchedness of the ghetto, that Sweetback is a self-serving, apolitical individualist rather than a revolutionary, and that the protagonist's sexploitative construction actually reinforces negative African-American male stereotypes. These criticisms were seconded by, among others, Black nationalist author and poet Haki R. Madhubuti.
Unfortunately, what tends to get lost in the heated debates surrounding Sweetback 's socio-political "message" is an acknowledgment and consideration of Van Peeble's innovative directorial style. By making creative use of such techniques as montage, superimposition, freeze frames, jump cuts, zoom-ins, split-screen editing, stylized dialogue, multiply-exposed scenes, and a soulful musical score by the black rock group Earth Wind and Fire, Van Peebles broke new ground and challenged viewers' expectations. All of this should make obvious the point that Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is not just a statement, protest, or historical oddity, but a unique cinematic experience for people of all colors to reflect upon, appreciate, and enjoy.