director Melvin Van Peebles
The 1960’s and early 1970’s were one of the most radical times in world cinema, up and down, across the globe, right here at home. Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is in many ways as radical as any of them, an independently produced film that captured the zeitgeist of black America as a form of pride and rebellion, not just in the story but in the complete control of the means of production. The film is much a statement as entertainment.
Maybe it’s not that odd that one of the film’s that launched the blaxploitation genre was itself hardly pure exploitation. It’s clearly an artistic vision, roughly hewn, capturing the Los Angeles of its time in ways very different from anything else I can think of. Made with a largely amateur crew, Peebles did just about everything on the film: writing, directing, starring, editing, scoring. It’s a highly personal vision.
As radical as it is and as much impact as it had, it’s not itself perhaps a “great movie”. Sweetback’s odyssey across Los Angeles, on the run from the cops he fought, bouncing from one back alley hideout to another, vindicating himself through his sexual prowess, turns out a mixed bag of reaction, and perhaps a somewhat limited statement overall. It seems that scholars have addressed this issue.
There is a lot going on here, more than I care to try to unpack after my first viewing of the movie. It is interesting, though, to see the film which was so formative for the style and content of a decade’s worth of blaxploitation films that would follow actually being such a personal and polemical film, hardly just the lip service and trappings of the Black Power movement, but emanating from its personal essence within Peebles’s vision.