Melvin Van Peebles

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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.)

Penelope Gilliatt

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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...

(This entire section contains 512 words.)

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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 her enveloping wooziness she is also startlingly bigoted for a character who is supposed to be French. When her lover comes near her, she has an immediate fantasy of him as one of a band of cannibalistic savages in leopard skins. France has many right-wing problems, but this unfortunate hallucination is not one of them. The affair that the film depicts is very, very retarded, like some halcyon bunk-up between Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh. This is obviously because the picture is terrified that it is handling dynamite. If only it had hung on to the fact that it is supposedly handling people…. It's true that [the couple] are hampered by having no language in common, apart from entirely suitable kindergarten talk. She speaks to him in pidgin French and he speaks to her in pidgin West Indian English, and then each translates for the other, thus surreally supplying the other's instant subtitles and making the film marketable all over the place. I kept being reminded of the generally excruciating experience of watching ballet try to present a sexual narrative. The two depleted creatures here mime and swoon and posture, and seem like no human beings on earth…. Every frame and word of the picture expresses something affected and heedless of character…. [How] much better things would be if the movie could have found the courage to be grown-up. (p. 78)

Penelope Gilliatt, "Telling It Like It Isn't," in The New Yorker (© 1968 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 64, No. 22, July 20, 1968, pp. 78-80.∗

Hollis Alpert

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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.

Stanley Kauffmann

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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.∗

Charles D. Peavy

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[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 strangely like baffled children. (p. 2)

The main concern of Three Day Pass is with attitudes toward miscegenation. For instance, every time the couple makes love each has his own private, racially-oriented fantasy. Turner imagines himself as a French grand seigneur of the eighteenth century, making love to his white chatelaine in a Provencal chateau, while Miriam imagines herself pursued by savage warriors in a jungle, who capture and threaten to ravish her…. The theme of Three Day Pass dates back to the sort of integrationist-assimilationist protest literature that is now eschewed by the adherents of the Black Arts Movement…. Perhaps this dated aspect of Van Peebles' film may be explained by the expatriate nature of his career, which would quite naturally separate him from the newest developments in American black nationalism. (p. 3)

Charles D. Peavy, "An Afro-American in Paris: The Films of Melvin Van Peebles," in Cinéaste (copyright © 1969 by Gary Crowdus), Vol. III, No. 1, Summer, 1969, pp. 2-3.

Joseph Morgenstern

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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 seems to be setting a specific, parodic style. He also uses gospel music effectively in a shower-bath scene as [the hero] prays for divine enwhitenment. All too quickly, however, Van Peebles loses track of his initial impulses and his style becomes merely old-fashioned: Dagwood and Blondie Meet the Black Revolution.

Van Peebles is in a difficult spot as an inexperienced director who's been pressed into service by an industry that has suddenly decided, after decades of racism in its ranks, that it needs black directors. He can't sustain a sequence. Many of his shots don't match, and he's committed to a conventional technique in which they should. There's no way of knowing from this movie whether Van Peebles will grow, whether he'll get further chances to grow….

Van Peebles goes back to the '30s as if he'd invented them for a symbolic montage in which [the hero] walks and walks and walks toward a bar in a black neighborhood and becomes blacker and more militant with each stride. That's the apparent point of the montage, at any rate. It's charmingly badly done, and if I sound condescending toward Van Peebles I guess I am.

Joseph Morgenstern, "Off-Color Joke," in Newsweek (copyright 1970, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXV, No. 21, May 25, 1970, p. 102.

Jacob Brackman

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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 blacks; a sort of underwriting for which he has no stomach. Finally, without home, family, friends, he hangs around sleazy black bars dreaming of his white life. In the final image, he's in a cellar training for street warfare with militant brothers. He rehearses the calisthenics of guerrilla combat—in African gown, and brandishing a spear—his face contorted in wounded rage. (pp. 68, 70)

[Beneath] the running gag of Watermelon Man lies the understanding that it's too awful to think about much—unless you're black, in which case you think about it the whole time. (p. 70)

Jacob Brackman, "Films: 'Watermelon Man'" (copyright © 1970, Esquire Publishing Inc.; used by courtesy of the magazine), in Esquire, Vol. 74, No. 4, October, 1970, pp. 68, 70.

Roger Greenspun

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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 is almost all predictable formula material.

The film is being presented as searing racial indictment—which may be a reasonable enterprise, but I don't think it is Van Peebles's enterprise, even when he tries to make it so. He is, from everything I have seen, better at exploring relations and sophistications than he is at proclaiming separations and simplicities—and his man on the lam, whatever he stands for, comes to look like nothing much more than an academic exercise in advanced cinematography, characterized by double exposure, multiple screen and minimal feeling….

[The] moments which I really sense Van Peebles as a valuable presence are few and fleeting. But there are such moments … that show the director at work in the kind of moviemaking I hope he'll some day complete.

Roger Greenspun, "Van Peebles Returns in 'Sweet Sweetback'," in The New York Times (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 24, 1971 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1971–1972, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1973, p. 54).

Clayton Riley

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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 abrasive substance.

The film is an outrage. Designed to blow minds. A disgraceful and blasphemous parade of brilliantly precise stereotypical Blacks and Whites, all drawn extravagantly and with impossible dimensions, all haunting our memory of what is true….

Technically, the film dazzles, is a rough diamond glittering an inquisitive light upon a people and what is, in fact, their own business. Van Peebles employs the camera like a surgeon slicing away fat and other body tissues, always probing toward real or imagined diseases. Sealed into nearly every frame of "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" is a desperate level of energy, a frenetic, often dizzying romp through a portion of the Republic, encountering or passing by its disgraceful streets, the crumbling houses in which live its pimps, whores, its witless members of the law enforcement world, its thieves and assassins who all, ultimately, are the Republic's victims.

Certainly the film is objectionable. Van Peebles can zoom in as smoothly, as gracefully, and as precisely on the Brothers who are into revolution as he can put a candid lens on Brothers who are into cocaine. And, seemingly, with the same intense concern….

An immediate response to what Melvin Van Peebles has done could be seen at the screening of the film I attended. Shock. Disgust. Towering rages everywhere…. And the outraged have a solid point, there is little positive Black imagery in "Sweet Sweetback." There is only the truth as Van Peebles has experienced it. But in spite of the absence of positive portraits, there are no inaccuracies, just exaggerations, larger-than-life scale models of Black folks caught in a life that should not—but does exist.

What consistently captures the attention here is the madness of Van Peebles as an artist, his existence in a private universe made public for a short time. Because to see his film … is to know the Brother possesses [a] kind of singular sense of purpose….

Van Peebles utilizes [a] kind of functional insanity. With a nonprofessional cast, he charts a course through cinematic waters no one else has even put a toe in, makes visual revolutionaries of us all, lets us see a sector of ourselves we wish, perhaps, he had left alone….

Van Peebles' gifts are plentiful and rich. Acting, unfortunately, is not one of these…. His direction of other actors, particularly the Whites in "Sweet Sweetback," is incomplete; they are rendered poorly, become sketches instead of portraits and bring death on several of the more important scenes. (The police chief in action is pure cardboard, as are several other non-Black roles.)…

The survival of the Sweetbacks of the world, their ability to maintain their lives, is possibly America's most significant current event. All those welfare spooks are surviving, along with the Vietcong and so many other well-endowed outlaws.

Clayton Riley, "What Makes Sweetback Run?" in The New York Times (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1971 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1971–1972, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1973, p. 62).

Paul D. Zimmerman

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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 its inclusion of arty split-screen effects, superimpositions and negative color, draws a harrowing portrait of black city life. Van Peebles creates an effective street collage of religious signs, voodoo storefronts, drab poolrooms, backyard garbage dumps and middle-aged black faces, their heavy eyes drained of hope and dulled with drink, their features worn by endless bouts with a dead-end world.

Van Peebles resists the temptation to preach except through the lyrics of his soul songs….

Van Peebles's vision is unsparing…. [The] episode in the nightclub, as Sweetback, dressed in drag, makes love to a black woman amid the chuckling applause of a predominantly white audience, is one of the most effective metaphors of black degradation ever filmed. These moments represent personal cinema at its best—one man, telling it like he sees it, his dream of liberation unadulterated by studio pressures or commercial considerations. (p. 118)

Paul D. Zimmerman, "Stud on the Run," in Newsweek (copyright 1971, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 72, No. 19, May 10, 1971, pp. 116, 118.

Penelope Gilliatt

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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, cheek, fury, blue jokes, clan loyalty, swagger, and a murderous skepticism. The film's whole style of overstatement is grating, and is meant to be. The film wasn't made for the approval of aesthetes…. "Sweetback" is bent on going too far. That is the film's great sense of the popular, maybe….

[This] film holds out the image of a black frontier hero who survives every wound from whites and police, who holds enthralled any girl he wants, who makes peeping white cops nervous because a white woman wants him at an orgy, and who has more humor and self-command than anyone else around. The white authority figures in this film are a crumbling lot, amateurishly played, by a trick of casting that is certainly on purpose. The fable is a dream of weak cops and of power-driven white sensualists who have travelled beyond enjoyment. The blacks are funny, rude, unforgivable, with mouths forever closed against the other side, and equipped with blond wigs and drag wedding dresses that allow them to suggest a sarcastic hint of changing race or sex for the pleasure of a teased, yearning nobility…. ["Sweetback"] is fiercely on the side of a minority, and it takes the shape of a fable. The film sets a tone that is bound to be followed and that will later, to judge by the past, grow fonder of its characters. This angry start is impossible, haughty, not likable, but sometimes rather admirable in its context. (p. 68)

Penelope Gilliatt, "Sweetback," in The New Yorker (© 1971 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 67, No. 18, June 19, 1971, pp. 68-9.∗

James Monaco

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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 think, is using these elements, commenting upon them.

The images of the film fall quite neatly into three classic categories, elemental actions that triangulate (and strangulate) ghetto life in the U.S.:

• People run. ("Keep this Nigger boy running," said the note in Invisible Man.)

• People stomp and kick and shoot and cut.

• People fuck. (They don't "make love," they don't "have sex." This is pure badass fucking.)

The narrative is linear, and boring as such. Sweetback …, who works in a brothel when the film begins, is finally moved to action, stomps a couple of cops unconscious, then begins running. He runs for the rest of the film. The movie reaches a high pitch almost before the credits begin and it stays there until shortly before the end. Even the gut-wrenching violence becomes boring; it is a commonplace of the world the film delineates.

The pain with which Van Peebles washes the screen is meant to be transmuted into anger by audiences, and then into political action. The film is dedicated to "All the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of The Man." Does it succeed in this militant aim? Does any film? At the end, as Sweetback finally escapes to Mexico, leaving the carcasses of the hounds sent to rip him to shreds floating bloodily in the Rio Grande, we cheer, we are relieved. Then a set of titles appears on the screen: "Watch Out. A Baadasssss Nigger is coming back to collect some dues." But it's hard to believe. Sweetback's unitary drama is so existentially rooted that it is difficult to see how his anger can work politically.

It probably can't. (Historically, it didn't.) But the film succeeds as a cri de coeur, an announcement that Black militancy has reached your neighborhood movie screen and that things will never be the same. Sweetback himself is a role model, one of the first. Sweetback teaches the lesson of survival. We might ask that he be more intellectually analytical. (pp. 200-01)

Sweetback is a morality tale of sorts: an image to be examined and discussed. Such a hymn of pain had no antecedents in Black film when Van Peebles made Sweet Sweetback, but it certainly could look to forerunners in the novel, most notably [Richard Wright's] Native Son and [Ralph Ellison's] Invisible Man. Like Ellison's ephemeral hero, Sweetback embarks upon an odyssey of terror and confusion, consciously learning the lessons intuited in childhood. It leads him underground—literally—into the sewers which were the refuge for Invisible Man. In theme, Sweetback is even closer to Native Son. The film clangs with anger and rage….

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song thus situates itself squarely in a long and important tradition in Black American narrative art. The Sweetback character has been mimicked and repeated a number of times since, but never with such purity of purpose and such élan. Van Peebles bent the medium of film to his will. No one else has bent it so far or so well since. (p. 202)

James Monaco, "The Black Film (and the Black Image)," in his American Film Now: The People, the Power, the Money, the Movies (copyright © 1979 James Monaco; reprinted by arrangement with The New American Library, Inc., New York), Oxford University Press, New York, 1979, pp. 185-214.∗

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Van Peebles, Melvin (Vol. 2)