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.)