Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
A landmark of Black and American independent cinema that would send shock waves through the culture, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was Melvin Van Peebles’s second feature film, after he walked away from a contract with Columbia in order to make his next film on his own terms. Acting as producer, director, writer, composer, editor, and star, Van Peebles created the prototype for what Hollywood would eventually co-opt and make into the blaxploitation hero: a taciturn, perpetually blank-faced performer in a sex show, who, when he’s pushed too far by a pair of racist cops looking to frame him for a crime he didn’t commit, goes on the run through a lawless underground of bikers, revolutionaries, sex workers, and hippies in a kill-or-be-killed quest for liberation from white oppression. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’s incendiary politics are matched by Van Peebles’s revolutionary style, in which jagged jump cuts, kaleidoscopic superimpositions, and psychedelic sound design come together in a sustained howl of rage and defiance.
The third title in Criterion’s latest box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films, features the director’s landmark film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on the first dual-layer disc of a two-disc package. The 1080p/24hz high-def presentation comes from a recent 4K restoration performed in by Vinegar Syndrome in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, and is said to be sourced from the 35mm original camera negative (though I’m going to venture a guess, based on some of the photo effects and the overall end results, other sources were used as well). The feature ends with the Vinegar Syndrome logo after the credits, so I assume this is the same master used for their own Blu-ray edition. The second dual-layer disc features Mario Van Peebles’ 2003 feature on the making of the film, Baadasssss!
Despite Sweetback's age and rough origins showing through the restoration has managed to pull off an impressive miracle. A majority of the film looks pretty damn good, fairly clean and sharp with nice details and excellent colours, which are warm but not overly so. Black levels are mostly clean and allow for decent shadow detail (where the lighting conditions and source materials allow) and even if film grain and its various levels of coarseness can get a bit noisy in places I found it still retained a natural look a good majority of the time.
Despite all of the nice things about the general encode and restoration efforts the film’s low-budget and the ravages of time have still left their respective marks, the source materials showing their rough spots from time to time, an aspect that I'm sure has more to do with shooting conditions or even how materials have been stored through the years. About 14-minutes in, a nighttime sequence, following Sweetback being picked up by the police, takes on a significantly grainier, fuzzier, and darker look. It can be very hard to see for the next little while, and it does appear the digital encode is having troubles with it: the blacks are severely flattened and gradients in the colours are a little harsher. The low lighting, and maybe the film stock, almost certainly play a lot into this heavy shift. Several sequences also show large scratches and other marks, which rain through heavily. The damage is noteworthy, and could be from damage caused during shooting, but I’m sure repairing these scenes digitally would have just harmed the image more, so leaving them in place may have been the wiser call.
Still, I was quite impressed by the end results. The film has always looked pretty rough, and to see it as sharp as it is here gives a whole new feel to it.
The second disc holds Baadasssss!—which is making its debut on Blu-ray through this set—and it is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The film was shot in high-definition using a Sony HDW-F900R and then completed entirely through a digital workflow. It appears the master used here is sourced directly from those files. I was surprised by how well the image has turned out all things considered, the picture looking sharp and clean with striking colours. There are some digital artifacts present, which include shimmering effects in some of the tighter details, reds looking a bit messy around the edges with a noisy layer over a number of the film's darker sequences, but I’m sure this ihas more to do with digital equipment used during filming. There are also some other rough looking sequences that have been made to look like they come from the original Sweetback film, with Mario standing in for his father; they’ve had a fake layer of "grain" added along with some fake "damage," but the footage is clearly digital and new, and the end results don't look natural, we'll say. Still, it’s a very pleasing image and significantly sharper and less noisy than what the previous DVD offered.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971): 7/10 Baadasssss! (2003): 8/10
Sweet Sweetback comes with a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. The sound is quite a ways better than I was expecting though still shows its age. Dialogue is clear enough, limited a bit by some technical aspects I feel, and the film’s music does manage to show some range. Impressively, I don’t recall any signs of heavy damage.
Baadasssss! comes with a 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD MA. Sound quality is excellent with wide range, and is comes off sharp and crisp throughout. The film does make decent use of the surround stage, throwing music around the viewer while making effective use of the lower frequency. There are some great background effects on the sets, out on the streets, or at a couple of parties or other active sequences. It's fairly immersive for what the film is, and it sounds very clean.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971): 6/10 Baadasssss! (2003): 8/10
Out of all of the film’s in Criterion’s box set, Sweet Sweetback, unsurprisingly, receives the most stacked edition, spreading material over two dual-layer discs. The first disc starts out with a quick 2-and-a-half-minute introduction from Van Peebles, recorded in 1997, explaining what he was hoping to accomplish with the film and laying out the set of rules he setup for him to follow (reference in Baadasssss!). This is all expanded on in the included audio commentary featuring the filmmaker and recorded in 1997 for Criterion’s original LaserDisc edition for the film. This ends up being one of the more thorough and engaging director tracks I can recall listening to in recent memory, Van Peebles giving the entire backstory to the production and sharing some incredible and even insane details around it. A lot of these details found in the track do get covered in his son’s film, Baadasssss! admittedly, like the real gun that ended up in the prop box (which he still seems to have nightmares about) but he also digs deeper into some more technical aspects, explaining how he pulled off some shots and edits. He also talks about a number of issues he ran into around the technical side of things, which even included dealing with labs. One story involved dealing with lab technicians over the recorded audio, who were sure at times there were issues with his material; they didn’t understand the jive dialogue in one sequence and was sure there was something wrong with it.
One of the more fascinating sections focuses around getting a rating for the film, and he knew the MPAA wouldn’t treat it fairly and would ultimately try to give it an X, which I don't think would have surprised anyone knowing how strict they can be. It sounds like he was hoping to get around that, releasing it technically “unrated,” though the film would still be treated as an X-rated feature in the end, meaning a lot of theaters wouldn’t show it and newspapers would refuse to advertise it. He had ways to get around this (which ultimately worked in promoting the film) but he still fought the MPAA on it and he ends up reading here the letter he sent to Jack Velenti and the MPAA, stating his intention to sue.
This is just one of the many roadblocks he faced, and he covers others as well, like how his mental condition deteriorated during this time (caused by stress, exhaustion, and more) but he knows it was all worth it in the end, with directors like Spike Lee telling him this film inspired them to become filmmakers. It’s a roller-coaster of a commentary and certainly worth a listen. Happy Criterion was able to pull it out of their archives.
Criterion has also filmed a couple of new features, including 23-minute interview between Elvis Mitchell and Van Peebles’ son, Mario. The two talk about the impact Melvin Van Peebles had, his son sharing some personal stories and funny anecdotes, including some relating to how his father knew how to play Hollywood executives (the one around how his father set up a screening of Watermelon Man for execs is pretty funny). He also talks a little about Baadasssss! and recalls a few humourous (and a few frustrating) stories around his dad helping him with projects.
Criterion also offers up what they call a “Scholars Panel,” featuring (remotely) Amy Abugo Ongiri, Gerald R. Butters Jr. and Novotny Lawrence. While the three delve a little into Van Peebles’ other work, the focus of the conversation is just how much Sweet Sweetback changed things in terms of black cinema, like its direct targeting of a black audience, the doors it opened for other filmmakers later, and how it represents aspects of a black community. I think this one nicely contextualizes the film to the time period and clearly explains its impact. It runs a quick 25-minutes.
The disc also houses a couple of television programs that aired around the time of the film’s release. A 13-minute episode of a program called Detroit Tubeworks features the director promoting the premiere of his film, touching on a number of subjects including why it was “X-rated by an all-white jury” and how he was able to promote it despite the film technically missing the MPAA rating it needed. Criterion also digs up a 1971 episode of Black Journal (another episode of which appears on the disc for The Story of a Three Day Pass), featuring separate interviews with Van Peebles and critics Clayton Riley, Francis Ward, and A. Peter Bailey, running 23-minutes. This is a really good one, delivering differing perspectives on the film, with Van Peebles addressing the criticisms thrown at him. Ward, for example, is not impressed by the film and is pretty blunt in his dismissal of it and Van Peebles, feeling the film doesn’t have a proper message for the black community. More valuable for the alternate points of view and differing opinions, as well as Van Peebles’ responses to them.
The disc then closes with the film’s original trailer.
Disc two probably presents the set’s biggest bonus outside of Van Peebles’ commentary from the Criterion LaserDisc, and that is son Mario Van Peebles’ 2003 dramatization on the making of his father’s landmark film, Baadasssss!, with Mario in the role of his father. This is one of the better bio-style films I can recall, even if it falls into some of the same trappings of others: condensing timelines, simplifying certain details, giving in to a cathartic Hollywood finale that sounds to simplify things a bit based on comments found throughout the set. But then, of course, the younger Van Peebles is looking to entertain and keep the suspense (will this film succeed or will it ruin the young director!?), which are fair goals and similar to a couple of his father’s own goals with Sweetback. I think he ultimately succeeds, delivering a fun film that captures the frantic and uncertain nature of putting together an independent film of this nature, guerilla in style, with the danger overhead that things could be shut down at literally any moment.
If there’s one disappointment it’s that the film doesn’t delve as deeply into Mario’s and his father’s relationship all that much, a topic I would have expected to be more at the center considering who made this film. For example, the sequence around how Melvin is dead set on his son playing young Sweetback in the scene where he is “losing his cherry,” to the concern of most everybody else, is built up, with some of child Mario’s hesitancy and worry on display, but then nothing much comes from it. There are also a few scenes around the two just talking and building a bond, but they’re sequences that are of a generic variety and don’t build on the relationship much other than to confirm Melvin loves his son, something that is never in doubt. Unfortunately, Mario ends up being a minor secondary character, Rainn Wilson’s hippie cohort and his friendship with Melvin receiving significantly more airtime in comparison. This could be the point, Mario not wanting to pull that focus from his father to place it on himself, which is understandable, but maybe telling the story from young Mario's point of view, watching his dad and his trials against the system that is constantly trying to put him down, could have given the film a little more heft. Daughter Megan manages to get even less time.
Still, Van Peebles, who was there by his dad’s side throughout most of the filming of Sweetback, uses that experience to document the making of the film as best he can and offer a loving and proud portrait of his dad, at his strongest and even at his weakest, and how he overcame all of the obstacles set up against him to make the film he wanted. It’s a fun film, with a hell of a cast that includes Wilson, Long, David Alan Grier, Ossie Davis (as Melvin’s dad), Terry Crews, Saul Rubinek, Joy Bryant, and even walk-ons from Vincent Schiavelli and the always game Adam West. I’m a bit let down it’s been relegated to a supplement instead of receiving its own spine number (though it has been given its own cover in the fold-out of the release's digipak), but I’m more than happy Criterion saw it worthwhile to license for this release, meaning I can retire the DVD.
Sadly, Criterion doesn’t port over all of the material from the DVD, a featurette around the film’s premiere and footage from a Q&A with the elder Van Peebles both missing. They do carry over the 22-minute making-of, The Birth of Black Cinema, which is a better-than-average studio produced featurette, getting into the real-life story of Melvin Van Peebles’ struggles to get his film made before focusing on his son’s bio-pic.
Thankfully, Criterion has carried over the original audio commentary recorded by both Melvin and Mario Van Peebles in 2004 for Sony’s DVD edition. As expected, the younger Van Peebles muses about the making of the film, going over production details, casting, and the various obstacles he faced, which even included the possibility of running out of money. His dad confirms details in the film or expands on them, with both pointing out where the film takes liberties. Mario also asks his dad some questions about the film and Melvin answers them, which allows him to talk a little about how he approaches film and how he visualizes things in the editing room, the director even getting a bit more technical here compared to other features in the set. It’s all great but I think I was most charmed by it when it’s just a father and son talking and recalling stories from the time period portrayed in the film. It’s also fun when Mario is excited to explain how he pulled off certain shots and such, with the statements like “you see that dad!?” popping up from him. It really is a delightful track and it’s definitely a must-listen.
From the original Xenon and BFI DVD editions for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Melvin Van Peebles: The Real Deal features director, for 22-minutes, talking about the film and his work prior, explaining the journey he had to take to be able to finally make films on his own terms. The heavily stylized video delivers a fine enough interview, though the same material is covered elsewhere in the set; I suspect it was included more because Van Peebles himself put it together. A bit better is the 44-minutes' worth of excerpts from a 2004 interview with Van Peebles, conducted by his son, Mario, for the Director’s Guild of America. Here his son asks him a series of question around his thoughts on filmmaking and film in general. Although some of this material is touched on throughout the rest of the set’s supplements, the director gets into the nitty-gritty of his work, even explaining how he developed that desire to get into the medium to tell stories in another way. This includes what research he put into filmmaking and his a story around his initial shock as to how expensive the art is. Van Peebles had no education in filmmaking and was completely self-taught, so he explains here how he learned, from types of film all the way through the actual editing process. Sadly, Criterion was unable to get an all-new interview with the director (who sadly passed away almost a week before this set’s release) but this is probably the next best thing.
In all, Criterion has put together a nicely stacked edition for the film, carrying over their original LaserDisc commentary, packing in excellent material around the film that even includes differing opinions on it, before then throwing in the Mario Van Peebles' own film. I don’t think things can get any more complete than that.
A packed special edition with a surprisingly sharp looking presentation makes this the highlight of Criterion’s Van Peebles box set.