In 1971 Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song was released with an X rating. The film was self-funded by a black director, Melvin Van Peebles, who also starred in the film (a necessity when they couldn’t afford Screen Actor Guild Actors). Despite opening in only two theatres nationwide, the film was buoyed by black attendance and became the best grossing independent film of 1971.
Badasss is Mario Van Peebles tribute to his father’s groundbreaking film. He does a great job of conveying the incredible struggle of a filmmaker fighting to make a film where the black lead kills some crooked white cops, has sex with a white woman and gets away in the end.
Mario was in the original movie as a 13 year old kid and has a wonderful perspective to tell the story of his father’s fight to make this movie. Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song was made by a crew whose previous experience was making porno movies and a bevy of black and Latino newcomers. The film was filmed quasi-illegally, with the non-union leads rushing through shots before the cops could show up.
At one point during the filming the crew was arrested because the cops thought the boom mike wielded by a long-haired Puerto Rican was a bazooka.
A few things work out for the filmmaker, including finding an up and coming Earth Wind and Fire to perform the classic soundtrack. Van Peebles produced the film at a unique time in the history of the United States. Jeremy Varon points out that 1 million young people self-identified as revolutionaries in 1970 – not democrats or republicans – but revolutionaries. In this context the film finds a natural audience who might view authority with an extremely critical eye.
There are a few weak points in this film. The use of the handi-cam to add “realism” is taken a bit too far, and the cosmic-sixties cuts are reminiscent of the original film, but get tiring.
My favorite moment in the film comes when Melvin Van Peebles can’t finish the movie without some quick cash and has to turn to one of the only other successful black actors in the early seventies – Bill Cosby – to finance the rated X film.
The lessons learned by rebel filmmakers continue, since Mario Van Peebles was refused studio funding for this film, he raised the million dollars to make it himself. The movie is a great story and a moving documentation to the rebel spirit of Melvin Van Peebles. So go rent or buy a copy of Badassss as your contribution to independent black filmmaking.
And be on the lookout for his next project – an album with hip-hop rebel madlib!
Cross posted on Maximum Wisdom and I Just Saw