Van Peebles, Melvin (Vol. 2)
Van Peebles, Melvin 1932–
Black American playwright and filmmaker, author of Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death.
[Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death] ends with an old woman singing "Put a Curse on You," which is an indictment not of whites per se but of a whole rotten establishment that can compel a segment of the population to exist in such foulness.
The problem with all this is that, although its stark truth is instantly recognized by black members of the audience, most of the whites find the action so foreign to their way of life that, without denying its probable reality, they cannot laugh at its humor the way they did at the late Langston Hughes's Simply Heavenly or weep at its underlying tragedy the way they did at the late Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. They can only watch in distaste these intense flashes of daily ghetto squabbles and misfortunes and be thankful that their lives are less raw. Although he may presume it, the author doesn't show the whites that Harlem's shortcomings are the result of white neglect or white indifference. Nor does he make it clear to blacks that there is much they can do to improve the situation….
It is splendid, uncompromising work, and the fact that we frequently cannot translate it is perhaps an inevitable result of both our predispositions about theater and our unwillingness to face existence at this level.
Henry Hewes, "The Aints and the Am Nots," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, November 13, 1971; used with permission), November 13, 1971, pp. 10, 12.
With a combination of music, dialogue, dance, beautiful acting and soulful directing by a master, Gil Moses, Aint Supposed to Die [a Natural Death] presented us with an effective and meaningful evening in the theater. Broadway has never seen anything like it. Van Peebles' characters come alive and make us deal with them on their own terms. As Black people we understand their strengths, of which there aren't many, and their weaknesses, which are basically the result of being caught up in a death-dealing society.
Peter Bailey, "Annual Round-Up: Black Theater in America," in Black World (© April, 1972, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Peter Bailey), April, 1972, pp. 31-6.
Melvin Van Peebles' Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death is a luxury we can't afford. It is entertaining, especially if there is lurking in one's heart the conviction that Black people are, after all, helpless and depraved. The show is a musical production which boils down to a kind of panorama of life among impoverished city Blacks. The music (written by Van Peebles) is groovy, the set ingenious, the directing highly effective, the cast superb. But the whole thing is rather like a splendid mansion built on sand. The most important elements of drama—significant theme, character development, and ultimately a wise and compassionate vision of mankind—are totally absent.
The characters are prototypes of every imaginable ghetto ill…. With these same ingredients a serious artist can create a work that is a powerful human document of suffering and strength. But Van Peebles, unfortunately, lacks the vision of the serious artist. Virtually every character is warped, defeated….
Not one character transcends the hurting that life has put on him. Not one achieves even a slight understanding of his world or his role in it…. Not one character grows or is any wiser at the end than he was at the beginning. The only solution Van Peebles offers is unthinking, unplanned violence…. In a situation which should breed tragedy, these characters are far from tragic. They are pathetic clowns.
The women are particularly unlovely…. I am no women's libber, God knows, but I have too much respect for sex and for my own Black womanhood not to be offended by Van Peebles' image of femininity. Where are the strength and wisdom, the tenderness and beauty, with which Black women have weathered the centuries? The strength of its women has long been a vital part of the Black heritage….
[The] whole show was overloaded with filth. I am all for sex in life and in art. I am all for frank presentation of brutality and degradation when the presentation has a serious purpose. I saw no purpose in most of Van Peebles' smut. And there are limits….
Van Peebles has disguised in modern garb the same old false image of Black people which white America finds comfortable. And it is evident that the show is written to please a white audience….
At best. Van Peebles is a luxury we can't afford. At worst he is a menace to our selfhood. In any case, he is working against liberation.
Eugenia Collier, in Black World (© April, 1972, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Eugenia Collier), April, 1972, pp. 79-81.
'Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song' was written, produced, directed, scored—everything—by Melvin Van Peebles, who also stars….
'Sweetback' is about survival in the face of oppression, and the de-humanizing effects on all concerned of that oppression….
What do blacks think of all this?… 'Sweetback' … is symptomatic of the black ideology gap: those who've Made It on 'Ebony's' instant acceptability scale hate the film. It defies all their values, devalues their lives. But down there in darkest Watts, the brothers thought it was Right On…. As for the White Mothers, they cringed, and wrote long, long sentences divided by 'perhaps' about how all this exposed all sorts of psychological nasties that we'd sooner have left alone, but maybe it was better if we looked them in the face anyhow; because if 'Sweetback' was about anything at all, it was about the worst bogey of them all, the myth of black masculinity, the myth personified, the deep dark suspicion of the white American male that the black man knows something about sex and virility that he doesn't.
W. I. Scobie, "Supernigger Strikes," in London Magazine, April-May, 1972, pp. 111-16.
Melvin Van Peebles is a theatrical innovator of outrageous originality…. If there is a message in the drollery [of Dont Play Us Cheap], it's the homespun wisdom that everybody has a streak of devil in him, which can be easily tamed with a little help from his friends…. The separate elements he has assembled on stage have the makings of an uninhibited, uproarious, truly memorable party-to-end-all-parties.
Marilyn Stasio, in Cue, May 27, 1972.
There are still many places where the black man's lot is hard, unjust and unenviable. In the New York theater, however, it is not hard and unenviable, merely unjust. There Melvin Van Peebles, a black man of virtually no talent whatever (unless self-promotion can be counted as one), manages to have two musicals of zero value running concurrently on Broadway. I wrote briefly and dismissingly about Aint Supposed to Die a Natural Death: a bunch of untuneful, gratingly monotonous and generally hate-riddled Van Peebles songs …, without anything resembling a book, served up as a musical….
What is the basis for Van Peebles's reputation? Three movies, all of them critical and all but one audience flops, and Aint…. So now we get a new Van Peebles musical, Dont Play Us Cheap. This does not resemble Aint in any way, except that, from aint to dont, it continues Van Peebles's war on that white chauvinist status symbol, the apostrophe. Otherwise, the new show differs in that it has a book, and that, abandoning the previous message of hatred for whitey, it proposes to celebrate the joy of being black. These apparently laudable undertakings prove, in the event, even less appealing than their opposites….
[The greatest] disaster is the words, both book and lyrics. They turn the principal characters into nonentities, while leaving the lesser ones insulting clichés. I shudder to think what would have been said of a white author, had he portrayed blacks like this….
Black theater—like any other—is to be allowed and helped to grow. But it is not the tired formulas and tin ear of Melvin Van Peebles that will bear fruit. The current show merely shows that if there is anything drearier than Van Peebles's hate, it is Van Peebles's love.
John Simon, "Don't Play Us At All," in New York Magazine (© 1972 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by the permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), June 5, 1972, p. 72.
Van Peebles, Melvin (Vol. 20)
Melvin Van Peebles 1932–
Black American director, novelist, playwright, actor, and composer.
Van Peebles is one of the first American-born blacks to direct feature films. His work expresses the view of the repressed black who tries to overcome the restrictions placed upon him in a society dominated by whites. Therefore, fear, violence, and outrage are prominent in his work.
Van Peebles graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a degree in English literature. He began his career by making short films, hoping that they would arouse the interest of Hollywood producers. Instead, a major studio offered him a position as an elevator operator and parking-lot attendant. Van Peebles then went to Europe, and took a job editing the French edition of Mad magazine. He also toured in Brendan Behan's The Hostage with the Dutch National Theater. While in France, Van Peebles discovered that he could obtain a director's card if he wanted to adapt his own French writings. He then began to write novels and short stories in self-taught French. One of his works, The Story of a Three Day Pass, became the subject of his first feature film. Despite mixed reviews, the film attracted a great deal of attention in Hollywood, and Van Peebles quickly found himself in demand.
The first film Van Peebles made in the United States was Watermelon Man, a "black" comedy about a white bigot who turns black overnight. Critics were kind neither to Van Peebles nor to the film, and once again he found himself unwanted in Hollywood. No major studio would finance his next film, so he used his own money and loans from friends, and employed nonunion crews to make Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Van Peebles had to promote the film himself. Despite what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles, Sweet Sweetback became a huge box-office success and was a top money-making film for a time. The film is an angry, profane picture of black repression and is one of the few films in which "the black man [wins] in the end." Despite Van Peebles's statement, the film is seen by many to be a one-sided, negative portrayal of both blacks and whites.
Critics find fault with Van Peebles for his amateurish directorial techniques and his lack of creativity in depicting characters and situations. However, Van Peebles has been praised for bringing realistic themes to his films. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is certainly a revolutionary film in every sense, and Van Peebles's willingness to be direct and unrelenting has earned a cult following for his work. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
I've tried hard to find something admirable or engaging about "The Story of a Three Day Pass," but I can't make it. I don't see why the fact that the film was directed by a Negro—Melvin Van Peebles—and was achieved in a bad, hard time should inhibit anyone from saying that it is a craven and unfelt picture. You could call it "unpretentious," but that would be a coverup, for the truth is that you pine for the film to be a little immodest and quit licking your boots. The story is very simple, and it could be fine. An American Negro soldier with three days' leave has an affair with a French girl—in France, tactfully—which ends in idly dealt-out perfidies and retaliations by the whites around him. If the film had mustered any natural effrontery about telling what happens, or any regard for its characters, that in itself would have been exhilarating, and the picture might have seemed true and grievous. The trouble is that the hero … has been given a fatally winsome and wet personality. He apologizes all the time for being a Negro…. [The] film wants to make its general point about the suspiciousness that whites have bred—though it doesn't possess the gumption to raise womanish moaning to the level of rage.
[The coyness of the girl] is enough to drive you up the wall. She stands bemused at the window in her nightdress, and looks throbbingly at things, and smells the air, and wishes that moments could last forever. But for all...
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If anyone wants proof of the total, blind, unmitigated insufferableness of the American film industry, merely reflect on the fact that not one feature film has ever been directed by a Negro. This came forcibly to my attention with The Story of a Three Day Pass, a French film directed by an American Negro, Melvin Van Peebles. And I wouldn't be making the comment now if I hadn't found the film so pleasantly and sincerely made, so filled with delightful touches of humor, and for a first effort, so surprisingly adept technically…. [It] is enriched by Van Peebles with insight and human detail.
It has some weak points, too; they come from a tendency to caricature and stereotype. The soldier's company commander is too patently a prejudiced idiot, and Van Peebles takes the opportunity to pillory a group of traveling Negro gospel-singing ladies who behave like a DAR bunch on a socially minded outing. Much, much better is his handling of [the hero]…. Just as good is … the Parisian who responds to the boy's need for a companion.
Hollis Alpert, "The Van Peebles Story," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1968 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 51, No. 31, August 3, 1968, p. 35.
The Story of a Three Day Pass is unredeemedly painful…. As Van Peebles is a Negro and as this may be the first fiction feature directed by a Negro, the event is a social milestone. It is nothing else….
The story is triteness trying to be daring…. Its racial irony is muddy….
Even this feeble script might have been given some appeal if Van Peebles had cinema imagination and an understanding of acting. He has neither. His attempts at lyric lift (in the love episodes) are lame, his attempts at cinema imagination (the soldier envisioning himself differently in a mirror, the girl seeing him as an African native) would be thought dubious in a first-year film student….
If the film were an ambitious, gifted failure, there might at least be a case to be made for it on paper. But the racial comments are stale and childish, and the only quality that Van Peebles shows as filmmaker is his stamina in getting the film made at all. (p. 23)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Hit and Myth" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1968 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 159, No. 6, August 10, 1968, pp. 14, 23.∗
[Van Peebles's] short films, such as Sunlight and Three Pickup Men for Herrick, are rather mediocre productions…. [Sunlight illustrates] the tragedy of a black man who steals in an attempt to get enough money to marry the woman he loves. He is caught and imprisoned. Years later he is released from prison and returns in time to be the silent and unobserved witness at his daughter's wedding. The surprise ending and a rather nice score played by a group of San Francisco musicians do not offset the unexceptional photography and the wooden acting, although there are some notable shots achieved during the chase scene.
Three Pickup Men for Herrick is a well-conceived, if clumsily photographed, drama about the anxiety and suspense undergone by a group of men who stand at a 'pickup spot,' waiting for a white contractor to select some of them for a construction job. The opening scene, in which one of the workers walks to the 'pickup spot,' is almost interminable but there are a few good moments as the camera studies the face of the contractor as he studies the faces of the men, trying to determine by their expressions who would be best for the job, then shifts to the faces of the men as they strain to assume the attitudes they think are expected by the contractor. There is a genuine poignancy in the closing shot, which shows the two men who have not been selected walking away, hands in pockets, and looking...
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"Watermelon Man" is an extension, right to the breaking point and then beyond, of that "Finian's Rainbow" gag about the bigoted Southern senator who magically turns black…. When things go badly, it's usually because director Melvin Van Peebles and writer Herman Raucher are horrendously clumsy craftsmen, and their failures are enough to make flesh of any color creep.
The script describes [the] predicament as one big off-color joke, which is accurate enough, and runs out of ideas as soon as the joke has been set forth. Unless, that is, your idea of an idea is extremely undemanding…. Early on, when [the hero] is chasing a yellow commuter bus to the accompaniment of silentcomedy music, the director...
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There's a white suburban family in Columbia's Watermelon Man—… with a daddy, mommy, and spoiled, oblivious little girl and boy—and one morning the daddy, a bigoted insurance salesman, wakes up black…. Lots of funny stuff follows; a long elaboration on the joke of his newly acquired blackness…. Watermelon Man was directed by a black, and is therefore chock-full of classic grits-'n'-chitlins gags. All very breezy—set them up, punch them home.
Then, slowly, the comedy turns dark. For a bit, it seems the initial joke is simply being extended…. But then his wife leaves him, taking his kids. His boss encourages him to turn his talents for persuasion to exploiting poor...
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I think that Melvin Van Peebles has the talent, the intelligence and even the instincts of a good filmmaker—despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary. The latest exhibit, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," [is] Van Peebles's third and worst feature….
[Ideas] have saved Van Peebles several times when weak performances or no money or merely deadheaded directing have gotten in the way of realization. But in this movie the failure is so very nearly total that the ideas all turn into clichés and positively collaborate in taking things down….
[The subject] is Sweetback's flight to the border, and his adventures during flight; and at one level of artiness or another, it...
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[The] Brother is in town with a flick called "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," and let me tell you: Van Peebles is absolutely outside. I mean, the cat is wonderfully crazy, you know. And Bearing Witness to his film is like staring at a Black key sliding through the cosmos, turning sturdy locks and letting out weird human figurines to scatter among us. Spilling psycho conversations in our ears. Through the lens of the Van Peebles camera comes a very basic Black America, unadorned by faith, and seething with an eternal violence.
It is a terrifying vision, the Blood's nightmare journey through Watts, and it is a vision Black people alone will really understand in all of its profane and...
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Van Peebles dedicates ["Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song"] "to all the brothers and sisters who've had enough of the Man" and, indeed, his story is a celebration of that moment when the black man breaks with society and struggles to survive. (p. 116)
There are flaws in Van Peebles's bleak vision. Bitterness has pushed him to paint all policemen as sadists, beating anyone black, carelessly killing suspects in their search for Sweetback, deliberately detonating their pistols next to the club owner's ears to deafen him. His attitude toward his hero is unsure. (Does he accept the stereotype of black man as sexual athlete or does he use it ironically?)
But his documentary style, despite...
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Alas! I mean, hurrah! there exists a furiously tasteless picture called "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." It was made by a black man for blacks, and it is turning into a phenomenon of the industry…. "Sweetback" is a terrific fable. It is also a boot in the face for the wishes of moderates, black and white, who are likely to come away reeling….
"Sweetback" is presumably the first of a line of films. The next ones will get gentler, with luck, and better characterized, and signed with a clearer authorship than this, but they can never be anything like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," or lose the tongue they have found here, which is a shock in the cinema. It is a language of energy, stamina,...
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Watermelon Man was based on a gimmick: a bigoted white insurance salesman wakes up one morning to discover he's turned Black. Van Peebles's direction was lackluster. The film is by turns dull and annoying. One has the sense that … [Van Peebles was not] particularly happy bringing this fantasy to life. But as a "career move," Watermelon Man was smart. (p. 200)
Sweet Sweetback is not an easy film to admire: it's violent, even sadistic, obscene, frenzied, painful. Critics who disliked the film condemned it for trading on a classic Black stereotype, the buck. On the surface, the film has all the most extreme elements of the most cynical Blaxploitation ripoffs. But Van Peebles, I...
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