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Influential director, actor and writer Melvin Van Peebles dies at 89

By on September 22, 2021 0

Melvin Van Peebles, the influential filmmaker behind “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song”, and father of director and actor Mario Van Peebles, has passed away. He was 89 years old.

“Dad knew black images matter,” Mario Van Peebles said in a Criterion Collection statement. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth?” We want to be the success that we see, so we need to see ourselves free. True liberation did not mean emulating the mentality of the colonizer. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all. “

“Sweet Sweetback” will be screened at the New York Film Festival this week as a tribute to the 50th anniversary. “During an unprecedented career characterized by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles has left an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays and his music, ”said the Criterion Collection.

Melvin and Mario Van Peebles teamed up on the 1989 film “Identity Crisis”, with Melvin directing and Mario scripting and starring a rapper possessed by the soul of a dead fashion designer. Melvin appeared in the 1993 film “Posse” directed by Mario Van Peebles, in which Mario also starred, as well as in Mario’s drama Black Panther “Panther” (1995), with Melvin adapting the screenplay for his own novel, the Mario Van Peebles. directed “Love Kills (1998) and” Redemption Road “by Mario (2010).

Melvin Van Peebles has also starred in The Work of Others, appearing in the 1991 comedy “True Identity”; Eddie Murphy’s “Boomerang” vehicle from Reginald Hudlin (1992); Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big budget action film “Last Action Hero” (1993); Charlie Sheen’s action film “Terminal Velocity” (1994); 2003 comedy “The Hebrew Hammer”, in which Melvin took over the role of Sweetback and Mario also appeared; and Tina Gordon Chism’s 2013 romantic comedy “Peeples” in which he played Grandpa Peeples.

In 1988, Mario Van Peebles starred in the brief NBC sitcom “Sonny Spoon,” about a private investigator, in which his father was also a series regular as the private investigator’s bar-owner father. On television, he has also made appearances in series such as “In the Heat of the Night”, “Dream On”, “Living Single” and “Homicide: Life on the Street”.

In “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” which Van Peebles wrote and directed, dedicating the film to “all black siblings who are fed up with man,” Van Peebles starred, an orphan – portrayed as a child of Van Peebles’ son, Mario – raised in a California brothel, where he performs menial chores and grows up to appear in live sex shows; one day, he is told to go up with two crooked detectives, who collect money for the protection of the brothel and elsewhere, and they end up beating a black activist. Sweetback eventually decides he’s had enough and attacks the cops, saving the black militant; From this point on, the film focuses on Sweetback’s flight to the Mexican border.

Van Peebles used a variety of interesting effects, including a lot of handwork “to help express the paranoid nightmare that the life of the fugitive had become,” according to the book “The 50 Most Influential Black Films: An celebration of Africans – American talent, determination and creativity. “

Produced with a total budget of $ 500,000, “Sweetback” grossed $ 10 million at the box office, according to “The 50 Most Influential Black Films”; A few months later, “Shaft”, studio-directed and directed by Gordon Parks, starring Richard Roundtree, was released and became a significant success.

“Sweetback” and “Shaft,” as well as the following year’s “Superfly”, directed by Gordon Parks Jr., are widely believed to have given rise to the Blaxploitation genre.

Van Peebles, however, criticized many Blaxploitation films for being devoid of political content.

Columbia had offered Van Peebles a three-film deal based on his previous film “Watermelon Man”, but neither Columbia nor any other studio would fund the film project that would become “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song”, so he did. does it himself. ; Bill Cosby loaned him $ 50,000 to complete the project.

The soundtrack for the film, featuring Earth, Wind & Fire, was released before the film itself in order to generate publicity and word of mouth.

When “Sweetback” earned an MPAA X rating, Van Peebles skillfully turned this significant barrier to any movie’s box office prospects into an advertising slogan that worked well with its target audience – “Rated X by a all white jury “- and said,” If the rest of the community submits to your censorship, that is their business, but white standards will no longer be imposed on the black community. “

“Sweetback” elicited a mixed critical response. The New York Times wrote a devastating review on its release, but in a 1995 reassessment Stephen Holden wrote: “This sulphurous nightmare of racial paranoia and revenge overshadows even the ‘Reservoir Dogs’ by conjuring up a world of infinite clarity, injustice and cruelty. Mr. Van Peebles’ film was not only the grandfather of (Blaxploitation films) but also the most innovative and politically inflammatory. “

In 2003, Mario Van Peebles made the film “Baadassss!”, Which was both a documentary and a tribute to his father’s “Sweetback”.

All-rounder Melvin Van Peebles presented four Broadway shows, the first of which was “Ain’t Suppose to Die a Natural Death,” for which he wrote the book, music and lyrics; it started off Broadway and ran for a total of 325 performances in 1971-72. The musical, which contained material from his three albums “Brer Soul”, “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” and “As Serious as a Heart-Attack”, was nominated by Tony for Best Musical, and Van Peebles was nominated for Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score, while the musical also received nominations for Directing, Set Design and Set Design.

For his next musical the following year, Van Peebles took more control, not only writing the book, music, and lyrics, but also producing and directing. “Don’t play us dear!” won him another Tony nomination, for the book of a musical, and in 1973 he adapted it into a film.

For “Reggae: A Musical Revelation” from the 1980s, Van Peebles contributed only the book, but two years later the original comedy with the music “Waltz of the Stork”, with the book, music and lyrics de Van Peebles, produced and directed by Van Peebles and starring Van Peebles, has run for 156 performances. Mario contributed backing vocals and appeared in drag in some scenes. Van Peebles turned “The Stork Waltz” into a 2008 film “Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha”, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.

For the “CBS Schoolbreak Special” episode “The Day They Came to Arrest the Books”, Van Peebles won a Daytime Emmy in 1987 for Outstanding Writing in a Children’s Program Special and also won a Humanitas Award.

Melvin Van Peebles was born in Chicago and attended West Virginia State College and then Ohio Wesleyan University, where he received a BA in English Literature. He served in the Air Force as a navigator-bomber for three years.

Van Peebles experimented with a career as a painter and, increasingly dismayed by the racist portrayal of African Americans in films, made short films as an amateur in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He did stints as a postman and, in San Francisco, a cable car ride – on which he wrote his first book, “The Big Heart”, in 1957. He spent some time in Mexico; in Holland he studied astronomy at the University of Amsterdam and theater at the Dutch National Theater.

The Cinémathèque française invited Van Peebles to screen his short films in his theater in Paris, where he spent some time as a street artist and wrote five novels (in English); the last of these books, “La Permission”, allowed him to be admitted to the Center du cinéma français as a director and won him a scholarship of $ 70,000. While still in Paris, he adapted this novel into his first feature film, “The Story of a Three-Day Pass” written and directed by Van Peebles (1968), which concerned a story of interracial love and dealt with racism – a black soldier is involved with a white girl and demoted accordingly.

“The Story of a Three-Day Pass” led to his first directing mission to the United States: “Watermelon Man,” a comedy about a fanatic white man who became a black man, played by the comedian Godfrey Cambridge, overnight. His wife was played by Estelle Parsons.

Joe Angio’s 2005 documentary “How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)” recounted the roller coaster life of Van Peebles.

Van Peebles was once married to German-born actress and photographer Maria Marx in the 1950s, but the marriage ended in divorce after several years.

In addition to his son Mario, he is survived by his daughter Megan Van Peebles, an occasional actress, and his son Max Van Peebles, an occasional actor and assistant director, and his grandchildren.