Obituary: Melvin Van Peebles, key figure in history of black cinema

Died: September 21, 2021.

MELVIN Van Peebles, who has died aged 89, was a filmmaker, writer, and renaissance man, whose film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), gave voice to contemporary African-American experience in a way that had been little seen previously.

Despite industry resistance to it being made at all, he wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film, as well as composing its soundtrack. His tenacity paid off and, after he hustled it into cinemas, the film made around $14 million at the box office. It also kickstarted a wave of independent features made by and starring black talents who, more often than not, had been previously relegated to bit-part status.

The so-called blaxploitation era briefly changed all that, with the films produced acquiring a cult status that influenced future generations of film-makers, from Spike Lee to Quentin Tarantino.

Van Peebles himself remained ambivalent about much that followed in Sweet Sweetback’s wake but his film possessed a political heart that remains pertinent beyond its groovy soundtrack and stylistic chutzpah later fetishised by 1970s revivalism.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song told the story of the film’s eponymous hustler, who goes on the run after witnessing racist white police officers assault a member of the Black Panthers. “This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man”, heralded the film’s trailer; real-life Black Panther Huey P Newton hailed Sweetback as “The first truly revolutionary black film”.

Sweetback was rejected by the studio which initially gave its director a three-picture deal. Van Peebles funded Sweetback himself, helped by a loan from comedian Bill Cosby, and shot it over just 19 days. As Spike Lee put it later, it was “an example of how to make a film… distribute it yourself, and most important, get paid”.

This sense of self-determination permeated everything Van Peebles did. The same year as Sweetback, he wrote the book and score to Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. This stage musical used spoken word, funk, jazz and blues in a series of monologues on the black urban experience in a style that pointed the way for rap and hip hop. The show ran on Broadway for nine months, and was nominated for seven Tony awards.

Van Peebles had developed his own musical and vocal style on his 1968 debut album, Brer Soul and released several other records during the 1970s. In the 1980s, he took an even more maverick turn, when he became an options trader on the American Stock Exchange. He later wrote about it in Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market.

He continued to make films, both as director and actor, and wrote novels, plays and musicals. Other stage works included Don’t Play Us Cheap! (1972), made into a film the same year, Reggae: A Musical Revelation, and Waltz of the Stork, filmed as Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha (2008).

As a screenwriter, he penned Panther (1995), about the rise of the Black Panther movement. The film was directed by his son, Mario, who had played the role of Sweet Sweetback as a child, and later played his father in the biographical Baadasssss! (2003), which dramatised Van Peebles’ struggles to make his most famous feature film.

Melvin Peebles was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Marion and Edwin Peebles. His father was a tailor on the south side of the city and, by the time Melvin was 10, he was working in his father’s shop and selling old clothes on the street. He attended Thornton Township high school and graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in literature before joining the US Air Force.

While working as a cable-car gripman in San Francisco, he recalled, a customer suggested he should become a filmmaker. His first book, The Big Heart (1957), was credited to Melvin Van. Featuring photographs by Ruth Bernhard, the book focused on his experiences on the cable cars. He made his first short film, Pickup Men, for Herrick, the same year.

With Hollywood uninterested in his work, he moved to the Netherlands, where he became Van Peebles. Before that, he met the cineaste and curator Amos Vogel, who screened his short works at his New York-based avant-garde film club, Cinema 16.

In France, Van Peebles wrote novels and plays and became editor of the short-lived French edition of Mad magazine. He based his debut feature, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967), on his French language novel, La Permission.

Presuming him to be a European auteur, Hollywood finally bit, and his second feature, Watermelon Man (1970), told the story of a racist white man who wakes up black. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song followed.

Van Peebles’ passing came as the New York Film Festival programmed a 50th anniversary screening of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. A Broadway revival of Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death in 2022, with his son Mario on board as a producer, will go ahead as scheduled. “Dad knew that black images matter,” Mario said after his father’s passing. “We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free.”

Van Peebles is survived by three children, Mario and Max, to his former wife Maria Marx, and Marguerite. His daughter Megan, also to Marx, predeceased him in 2006.


The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992