Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
name = Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
caption = Theatrical release poster
Melvin Van Peebles
Melvin Van Peebles Jerry Gross
Melvin Van Peebles
starring = The Black Community
music = Melvin Van Peebles
editing = Melvin Van Peebles
April 23, 1971
runtime = 97 minutes
Melvin Van Peebles
language = English
budget = $500,000cite book |last=Berry |first=S. Torriano |authorlink= |coauthors= |editor= |others= |title=The 50 Most Influential Black Films: A Celebration of African-American Talent, Determination, and Creativity |origdate= |origyear= |origmonth= |url= |format= |accessdate= |accessyear= |accessmonth= |edition= |series= |date= |year=2001 |month= |publisher=Citadel Press |location= |language= |isbn=0806521333 |oclc= |doi= |id= |pages=pages 116—117; 119 |chapter="Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" |chapterurl= |quote= ]
amg_id = 1:48123
imdb_id = 0067810
"Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" is a 1971 American
independent filmwritten, produced, scored, directed by, and starring Melvin Van Peebles. It tells the picaresque story of a deprived black man on his flight from the white authority. The film, funded and distributed outside of the Hollywood system, broke conventions with its visual style, as well as its content. It was a major success, and was credited by "Variety" magazine as demonstrating to Hollywoodthat films portraying "militant" blacks could be highly profitable, leading to the creation of the blaxploitationgenre. However, the film itself does not easily fit into the genre.cite web |url=http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040611/REVIEWS/406110302 |title=Review of "Baadasssss!" |accessdate=2007-01-04 |last=Ebert |first=Roger |authorlink= |coauthors= |date=June 11, 2004 |year= |month= |format= |work= |publisher=Chicago "Sun-Times" |pages= |language= |archiveurl= |archivedate= |quote= ]
A young orphan boy (played by Melvin's son,
Mario Van Peebles) is taken in by the proprietor of a Los Angeles whorehouse in the 1940s. While working there as a towel boy, he loses his virginity (at a startlingly young age) to one of the prostitutes; the women name him "Sweet Sweetback" in honor of his sexual prowess and gigantic penis. As an adult, Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles) works as a performer in the whorehouse, entertaining customers by having sex on stage. One night, a pair of police officers come in to speak to Sweetback's boss, Beetle. A black man had been murdered, and there is pressure from blacks to bring in a suspect. The police ask permission to arrest Sweetback, blame him for the crime, and then release him a few days later for lack of evidence, in order to appease the black community. Beetle agrees, and the officers arrest Sweetback. On the way to the police station, the officers arrest a young Black Panther. They handcuff him to Sweetback, but when the Panther mouths off to the officers, they un-handcuff him, take him out of the car, and beat him; in response, Sweetback gets out of the car and beats the officers into unconsciousness with the unlocked handcuff.
The remainder of the film chronicles Sweetback's flight through South Central L.A. (now South L.A.) towards the Mexican border. Sweetback is captured by the police for the murders of the cops, but escapes when a riot breaks out. Sweetback goes to a woman he knows who can cut his handcuffs off; she makes him pay her with sex. With his handcuffs off, Sweetback continues onward, only to be captured by an all-white chapter of the
Hells Angels. The female members are impressed by the size of Sweetback's penis, and after he gives one of them multiple orgasms during sex, they help him get to the desert. A white man sympathetic to his cause agrees to switch clothes with him, allowing the usually velourclad Sweetback to blend in. The police find Sweetback's foster-father, a blind, illiterate old man who reveals that Sweetback's birth name is Leroy. The film concludes in the desert, where the L.A. police send several hunting dogs after Sweetback. He makes it into the Tijuana River, where he kills the dogs and escapes into Mexico.
After Melvin Van Peebles had completed "Watermelon Man" for
Columbia Pictures, he was offered a three-picture contract. While the deal was still up in the air, Van Peebles developed the story for "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song". The initial idea for the film did not come clearly to him at first. One day, Van Peebles drove into the Mojave desert, turned off the highway, and drove over the rise of a hill. He parked the car, got out, and squatted down facing the sun. He decided that the film was going to be "about a brother getting the Man's foot out of his ass."cite book |last=James |first=Darius |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=That's Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss 'Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury |year=1995 |publisher= |location= |isbn=0312131925 ] Van Peebles, Melvin. "The Real Deal: What It Was...Is!". "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" DVD, Xenon Entertainment Group, 2003. ISBN 1578297508] Because no studio would finance the film, Van Peebles put his own money into the production, and shot it independently. Van Peebles wound up controlling ownership of the film. Several actors auditioned for the lead role of Sweetback, but told Van Peebles that they wouldn't do the film unless they were given more dialogue (the character of Sweetback only has six lines during the entire film), and Van Peebles ended up playing the part himself.
According to Van Peebles, during the first day of shooting, director of photography and head cameraman Bob Maxwell told him he could not mix two different shades of lights, because he believed the results would not appear well on film. Van Peebles told him to do it, anyway. When he saw the rushes, Maxwell was overjoyed, and Van Peebles did not encounter that issue again during the shoot.The film was shot over a period of 19 days because all of the actors were amateurs, and otherwise, Van Peebles would risk the castmembers coming back the next day with different haircuts or clothes. He shot the film in what he referred to "globs," where he would shoot entire sequences at a time. Because Van Peebles couldn't afford a stunt man, he performed all of the stunts himself, which also included appearing in several unsimulated sex scenes. At one point in the shoot, Van Peebles was forced to jump off a bridge. Bob Maxwell later stated, "Well, that's great, Mel, but let's do it again." Van Peebles ended up performing the stunt nine times. Van Peebles contracted
gonorrheawhen filming one of the many sex scenes, and successfully applied to the director's guild in order to get workers' compensationbecause he was "hurt on the job." Van Peebles used the money to purchase more film.
Because it was dangerous to attempt to create a film without the support of the Union, Van Peebles and several key crew members were armed. One day, Van Peebles looked for his gun, and failed to find it. Van Peebles found out that someone had put it in the prop box. When they filmed the scene in which Beetle is interrogated by police, who fire a gun next to both of his ears, it was feared that the real gun would be picked up instead of the prop. While shooting a sequence with members of the Hells Angels, one of the bikers told Van Peebles they wanted to leave; Van Peebles responded by telling them they were paid to shoot until the scene was over. The biker took out a knife and started cleaning his fingernails with it. In response, Van Peebles snapped his fingers, and his crewmembers were standing there with rifles. The bikers stayed to shoot the scene.
Van Peebles had received a permit to set a car on fire, but had done so on a Friday; as a result, there was no time to have it filed before shooting the scene. When the scene was shot, a fire truck showed up. This ended up in the final cut of the film. Van Peebles was given a $50,000 loan by
Bill Cosbyto complete the film. "Cosby didn't want an equity part," according to Van Peebles. "He just wanted his money back."
Van Peebles states that he approached directing the film "like you do the cupboard when you're broke and hungry: throw in everything eatable and hope to come out on top with the seasoning, i.e., by editing." Van Peebles states that "story-wise, I came up with an idea, why not the direct approach. [...] To avoid putting myself into a corner and writing something I wouldn't be able to shoot, I made a list of the givens in the situation and tried to take those givens and juggle them into the final scenario."cite book |last=Van Peebles |first=Melvin |authorlink= |coauthors= |editor=Kaufman, Alan; Ortenberg, Neil; Rosset, Barney |others= |title=The Outlaw Bible of American Literature |origdate= |origyear= |origmonth= |url= |format= |accessdate= |accessyear= |accessmonth= |edition= |series= |date= |year=2004 |month= |publisher=Thunder's Mouth Press |location= |language= |isbn=1560255501 |oclc= |doi= |id= |pages=pages 286—289 |chapter="Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" |chapterurl= |quote= ] Van Peebles wanted "a victorious film [...] where niggers could walk out standing tall instead of avoiding each other's eyes, looking once again like they'd had it." Van Peebles was aware of the fact that films produced by major studios would appear to be more polished than low-budget independently made features, and was determined to make a film that " [looked] as good as anything one of the major studios could turn out."
Van Peebles knew that in order to spread his message, the film "simply couldn't be a didactic discourse which would end up playing [...] to an empty theater except for ten or twenty aware brothers who would pat me on the back and say it tells it like it is" and that "to attract the mass we have to produce work that not only instructs but entertains". Van Peebles also wanted to make a film that would "be able to sustain itself as a viable commercial product [...] [The Man] ain't about to go carrying no messages for you, especially a relevant one, for free."
Van Peebles also wanted half of his shooting crew "to be third world people. [...] So at best a staggering amount of my crew would be relatively inexperienced. [...] Any type of film requiring an enormous technical sophistication at the shooting stage should not be attempted." Van Peebles also knew that gaining financing for the film would not be easy and expected "a great deal of animosity from the film media (white in the first place and right wing in the second) at all levels of filmmaking", thus he had to "write a flexible script where emphasis could be shifted. In short, stay loose."
The film's fast-paced montages and jump-cuts were novel features for an American movie at the time, although it is likely that Van Peebles was influenced by the
avant-gardefilms of Jean-Luc Godard, since he was living in Parisand studying to be a director during the mid-1960s. Louis Parks in the " Houston Chronicle" commented that the film's editing had "a jazzy, improvisational quality, and the screen is often streaked with jarring psychedelic effects that illustrate Sweetback's alienation." S. Torriano Berry writes that the film's "odd camera angles, superimpositions, reverse-key effects, box and matting effects, rack-focus shots, extreme zooms, stop-motion and step-printing, and an abundance of jittery handheld camera work all helped to express the paranoid nightmare that [Sweetback's] life had become."
Since Van Peebles didn't have the money to hire a composer, Van Peebles wrote the music himself. However, he didn't know how to read or write music. Van Peebles numbered all of the keys on a piano so he could remember the melodies. Van Peebles states that "Most filmmakers look at a feature in terms of image and story or vice versa. Effects and music [...] are strictly secondary considerations. Very few look at film with sound considered as a creative third dimension. So I calculate the scenario in such a way that sound can be used as an integral part of the film." The film's music was performed by the then-unknown group
Earth, Wind & Fire. At the time, the entire band was living in a single apartment with hardly any food. Van Peebles' secretary was dating one of the bandmembers, and convinced him to contact them about performing the music for the film. Van Peebles projected scenes from the film as the band performed the music. Van Peebles recalls that "music was not used as a selling tool in movies at the time. Even musicals, it would take three months after the release of the movie before they would bring out an album." Because Van Peebles did not have any money for traditional advertising methods, he decided that by releasing a soundtrack albumin anticipation of the film's release, he could help build awareness for the film with its music.cite book |last=Thompson |first=Dave |authorlink= |coauthors= |editor= |others= |title=Funk |origdate= |origyear= |origmonth= |url= |format= |accessdate= |accessyear= |accessmonth= |edition= |series= |date= |year=2001 |month= |publisher=Backbeat Books |location= |language= |isbn=0879306297 |oclc= |doi= |id= |pages=pages 207—208 |chapter=Blaxploitation: Funk Goes to the Movies |chapterurl= |quote= ]
Release and alterations
Melvin Van Peebles states that "at first, only two theaters in the United States would show the picture: one in Detroit, and one in Atlanta. The first night in Detroit, it broke all the theater's records, and that was only on the strength of the title alone, since nobody had seen it yet. By the second day, people would take their lunch and sit through it three times. I knew that I was finally talking to my audience. "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" made thousands of dollars in its first day." [cite book |last=Rausch |first=Andrew J. |authorlink= |coauthors= |editor= |others= |title=Turning Points in Film History |origdate= |origyear= |origmonth= |url= |format= |accessdate= |accessyear= |accessmonth= |edition= |series= |date= |year=2004 |month= |publisher=Citadel Press |location= |language= |isbn=0806525924 |oclc= |doi= |id= |pages=page 187 |chapter= |chapterurl= |quote= ] The film grossed $4,100,000 at the box office.
After "Sweetback" received an X rating from the
Motion Picture Association of Americaand a theater in Boston cut nine minutes out of the film, Van Peebles stated, "Should the rest of the community submit to your censorship that is its business, but White standards shall no longer be imposed on the Black community." [cite book |last=George |first=Nelson |authorlink= |coauthors= |editor= |others= |title=Buppies, B-boys, Baps & Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture |origdate= |origyear= |origmonth= |url= |format= |accessdate= |accessyear= |accessmonth= |edition= |series= |date= |year=2001 |month= |publisher=Da Capo Press |location= |language= |isbn=0306810271 |oclc= |doi= |id= |pages=page 3 |chapter= |chapterurl= |quote= ] The Region 2 DVD release from BFI Video has the opening sex sequences altered. A notice at the beginning of the DVD states "In order to comply with UK law (the Protection of Children Act 1978), a number of images in the opening sequence of this film have been obscured." [cite web |url=http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDReviews19/sweet_sweetbacks_badass_song_dvd_review.htm |title=Review |accessdate=2007-01-04 |last=Tooze |first=Gary W. |authorlink= |coauthors= |date= |year= |month= |format= |work= |publisher=DVD Beaver |pages= |language= |archiveurl= |archivedate= |quote= ]
The end of the film was shocking to black viewers who had expected that Sweetback would perish at the hands of the police—a common, even inevitable, fate of black men "on the run" in prior films. Film critic
Roger Ebertcited the ending as a reason for the film not to be labeled as an exploitation film. Critical response was mixed. Kevin Thomas in the " Los Angeles Times" described the film as "a series of earthy vignettes, where Van Peebles evokes the vitality, humor, pain, despair and omnipresent fear that is life for so many African Americans." The film was criticized for perceived elements such as poor lighting, negative women's roles, a limited performance by Van Peebles, and the exploitation of black cultural stereotypes. Stephen Holden in the "New York Times" called it "an innovative, yet politically inflammatory film." The film website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from a wide range of critics, gives the film a score of 73%. [cite web |url=http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/sweet_sweetbacks_baadasssss_song/ |title=Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song |accessdate=2007-01-04 |author= |authorlink= |coauthors= |date= |year= |month= |format= |work= |publisher= Rotten Tomatoes|pages= |language= |archiveurl= |archivedate= |quote= ] Huey P. Newton, devoting an entire issue of "The Black Panther" to the film's revolutionary implications,cite book |last=Guerrero |first=Ed |authorlink= |coauthors= |editor= |others= |title=Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film |origdate= |origyear= |origmonth= |url= |format= |accessdate= |accessyear= |accessmonth= |edition= |series= |date= |year=1993 |month= |publisher=Temple University Press |location= |language= |isbn=1566391261 |oclc= |doi= |id= |pages=86—90 |chapter=The Rise of Blaxploitation |chapterurl= |quote= ] celebrated and welcomed the film as "the first truly revolutionary Black film made [...] presented to us by a Black man."cite news |first=Huey P. |last=Newton |authorlink=Huey P. Newton |author= |coauthors= |title=He Won't Bleed Me: A Revolutionary Analysis of 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.' |url= |format= |work= |publisher=The Black Panther #6 |id= |pages= |page= |date= June 19, 1971|accessdate=2007-10-14 |language= |quote= |archiveurl= |archivedate= ] Among the arguments that Newton made for "Sweetback" were that it "presents the need for unity among all members and institutions within the community of victims," contending that this is evidenced by the opening credits which state the film stars "The Black Community," a collective protagonist engaged in various acts of community solidarity that aid Sweetback in escaping. Newton further argues that "the film demonstrates the importance of unity and love between Black men and women," as demonstrated "in the scene where the woman makes love to the young boy but in fact baptizes him into his true manhood." For anyone who wished to become a Black Panther, the film was required viewing for all Panther initiates.
A few months later, Lerone Bennett responded with an essay on the film in "Ebony", titled "The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland," in which he discussed the film's "black aesthetic" and concluded that the film is "neither revolutionary nor black." Bennett argued that the film romanticized the poverty and misery of the ghetto and that "some men foolishly identify the black aesthetic with empty bellies and big bottomed prostitutes." Bennett concluded that the film is "neither revolutionary nor black because it presents the spectator with sterile daydreams and a superhero who is ahistorical, selfishly individualist with no revolutionary program, who acts out of panic and desperation." Bennett described Sweetback's sexual initiation at ten years old as the "rape of a child by a 40-year-old prostitute." Bennett described instances when Sweetback saved himself through the use of his sexual prowess as "emancipation orgasms" and states that "it is necessary to say frankly that nobody ever fucked his way to freedom. And it is mischievous and reactionary finally for anyone to suggest to black people in 1971 that they are going to be able to screw their way across the Red Sea. Fucking will not set you free. If fucking freed, black people would have celebrated the millennium 400 years ago."cite news |first=Lerone |last=Bennett |authorlink= |author= |coauthors= |title=The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland |url= |format= |work= |publisher=Ebony #26 |id= |pages= |page=pages 106—118 |date=September 1971 |accessdate=2007-10-14 |language= |quote= |archiveurl= |archivedate= ]
Black nationalist poet and author
Haki R. Madhubuti(Don L. Lee) agreed with Bennett's assessment of the film, stating that it was "a limited, money-making, auto-biographical fantasy of the odyssey of one Melvin Van Peebles through what he considered to be the Black community."cite news |first=Don L. |last=Lee |authorlink= |author= |coauthors= |title=The Bittersweet of Sweetback; or, Shake Yo Money Maker |url= |format= |work= |publisher=Black World #21 |id= |pages= |page=pages 43-48 |date=November 1971 |accessdate=2007-10-14 |language= |quote= |archiveurl= |archivedate= ] The "New York Times" critic Clayton Riley viewed the film more favorably, commenting on its aesthetic innovation, but stated of the character of Sweetback that he "is the ultimate sexualist in whose seemingly vacant eyes and unrevealing mouth are written the protocols of American domestic colonialism." In another review, Riley explained that "Sweetback, the profane sexual athlete and fugitive, is based on a reality that is Black. We may not want him to exist but he does." Critic Donald Bogle states in a "New York Times" interview that the film in some ways met the black audience's compensatory needs after years of desexed Poitier characters and that they wanted a "viable, sexual, assertive, arrogant black male hero."
"Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" is considered to be an important film in the history of African American cinema. Hollywood studios were led to attempt to replicate the film's success by producing Black-oriented films such as "Shaft" and "Super Fly", leading to the creation of what is now referred to as the
blaxploitationgenre, largely consisting of exploitation films made by white directors. As Spike Leestates, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" gave us all the answers we needed. This was an example of how to make a film (a real movie), distribute it yourself, and most important, get "paid". Without "Sweetback" who knows if there could have been a "Shaft" or "Super Fly"? Or looking down the road a little further, would there have been a " She's Gotta Have It", " Hollywood Shuffle", or "House Party"?" [cite book |last=Massood |first=Paula J. |authorlink= |coauthors= |editor= |others= |title=Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film |origdate= |origyear= |origmonth= |url= |format= |accessdate= |accessyear= |accessmonth= |edition= |series= |date= |year= |month= |publisher=Temple University Press |location= |language= |isbn=1592130038 |oclc= |doi= |id= |pages= |chapter=Welcome to Crooklyn: Spike Lee and the Black Urbanscape |chapterurl= |quote= ] In 2004, Mario Van Peebles directed and starred as his father in " BAADASSSSS!", a biopic about the making of "Sweet Sweetback". The film was a critical and commercial success. [cite web |url=http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/baadasssss/ |title=Tomatometer for "Baadasssss!" |accessdate=2008-05-29 |publisher= Rotten Tomatoes] [cite web |url=http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=baadasssss.htm |title=Box office and business for "Baadasssss!" (2004) |accessdate=2008-05-29 |publisher= Box Office Mojo]
*cite book |last=Van Peebles |first=Melvin |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=The Making of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song |year=1996 |publisher=Payback Press |location=Edinburgh |isbn=0862416531
List of mainstream films with unsimulated sex
*imdb title|id=0067810|title=Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
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